It was, and remains, one of the most powerful images photography ever captured: a lone man wearing black pants and a white shirt standing firmly in the path of a column of camouflage-painted T-62 tanks, momentarily halting their advance.
Known since then as “Tank Man,” the rebel, whose identity and fate remain unknown, became an icon of the Chinese students’ crushed revolt and an emblem of freedom’s power, universality and price.
Having erupted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s decline and the communist idea’s demise, the events of spring 1989 seemed at the time like a quixotic effort to block history’s advance; an effort whose futility was second only to its brutality; a Godless resolve to resist the very Redemption whose triumph seemed predestined, global and well under way.
In the heady months between June’s massacre in Beijing and December’s eruption of freedom in Berlin, the Western sense of vindication was memorably voiced by American scholar Francis Fukuyama, whose essay “The End of History?” stated: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident.”
With the crumbling East Bloc ready to give way to democracy and capitalism, the Western sense of epiphany was such that a thinker like Fukuyama felt that “economic and political liberalism” had struck “an unabashed victory” and all “viable alternatives” now suffered “total exhaustion.”
Thirty years on, that impression seems unfounded. If anything, it is the Western model that is now on the geographic retreat and ideological defensive, as its veteran bastions grapple with political farce, democratic crisis, and social decay.
AS NOTED here last year (“The Spring of Prague at 50: A status report,” 23 August 2018), the great democratic drive that gathered in 1989 has since been blocked and reversed.
Curiously, the authoritarian reaction that was triggered in China was afoot already before the democratic drive it stemmed gathered its full momentum.
When the estimated million youngsters gathered at the foothills of Mao’s mausoleum, the USSR was still intact, as were the Warsaw Pact and all the East Bloc’s unelected governments. Proverbially, the communist world’s first free election, Poland’s, was held the day before soldiers jumping out of military trucks stormed Tiananmen Square and sprayed their brethren with tyranny’s fire.
The Chinese move, it now is clear, was part of something much larger than one attempt to prolong one regime’s life.
Having abandoned communism well before Eastern Europe, and having emerged within decades as the economic superpower that the Soviets never managed to build, millions of Chinese are now confident with their model of authoritarian capitalism. Even more confident is their president, who just made the one-party system crown him president for life.
China’s authoritarian reaction would soon prove not only fierce and accelerating, but also radiant.
The first to abandon what Fukuyama hailed, and to embrace its Chinese alternative, was Russia, in the wake of its transition from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. The second was Turkey, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan methodically dismantled its democracy.
This is besides the Chinese model’s flourishing all along in countries like Singapore and Vietnam, and inspiring governments further afield, from Eritrea to Iran.
Meanwhile, democracy’s retreat proceeded from its non-Western frontiers to its heartland’s outer rim, where countries such as Poland and Hungary began cultivating forms of absolutist democracy, in which elected leaders besiege and hammer the judiciary, academia, and the press.
What started in the West’s periphery soon emerged in its nerve center, the United States, where Donald Trump attacked its judicial and journalistic guardians, thus raising the suspicion that he has little appreciation for their democratic utility, maybe even for the very justice they were designed to pursue.
Now all this gathering retreat is compounded by a sense of political decline, underscored by what is happening in the mother of all democracies, Great Britain.
MIDDLE ISRAELIS following the events surrounding Brexit feel like children facing their drunken dad.
“We found him naked in the park,” reports the policeman in the doorway, shortly before the doctor’s diagnosis that dad is ill, and his disease may be incurable.
Like millions elsewhere in the postcolonial world, Israelis have looked up to Britain as a paragon of freedom, caution, balance, poise, and fair play, the wise kingdom that more than any other inspired the Jewish state’s founders as they built its government, military and courts.
Now this time-honored democratic locomotive is belching blackish smoke while its wheels squeak and its shock absorbers crack, raising suspicions that the combined weight of this train’s restless passengers and their contradictory agendas is too heavy for its horsepower’s pull.
Seen this way, democracy’s crisis is no longer about its geographic reach or popular appeal, but about its political efficiency.
It is against this backdrop of global democratic crisis that Israel’s democracy has now reached the worst scandal in its 71 years, as its legislature dissolved itself six weeks after having been sworn in.
One can imagine presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping following democracy’s travails from their chambers in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai, and quietly concluding that the worst is behind them; that after first stemming democracy’s drive and then restoring authoritarianism’s confidence, they are now witnessing the beginning of democracy’s demise.
Watching their Western peers – from Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau to Bibi Netanyahu and Theresa May – teeter on their thrones, the authoritarians mutter gloatingly: “Democracy devours its children.”
Yes, our victory is not guaranteed, much less is it predestined, as thousands of embattled dissidents between Russia, Turkey and China can today attest. And yes, 30 years on, democracy still has its fair share of enemies, malfunctions and martyrs. Even so, the spirit of freedom, the great engine of human discovery, debate and revolt, is alive and well, and will never be crushed.
Ask the Tank Man.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.
Thirty years on, democracy’s global drive has given way to geographic retreat and political decay
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