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The One Thing That Americans Understand Most about China

A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal peace near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (Stringer/Reuters)

We’ve heard quite a bit in recent days that public discussion of the lab-leak theory “could increase racist attacks against Chinese people and further fuel anti-Asian hate.”

This mentality assumes that Westerners, particularly Americans, cannot distinguish between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, and that anger over the Chinese government’s habitual dishonesty and cover-ups will inevitably curdle into hatred of anyone Chinese, Chinese Americans, or even any Asian Americans. The contention is that fury over the decision-making of Xi Jinping and the management of the Wuhan Institute of Virology will inevitably spill over into sneers, insults, and even physical assaults on families running the Chinese restaurant down the street.

One can fairly argue that the average American doesn’t know enough about China. The average American probably doesn’t know a lot about any foreign country.

But if you ask Americans what they think of when they think of China, there’s a good chance the image atop this Corner post will get mentioned: “Tank man,” staring down a row of People’s Liberation Army tanks leaving Tiananmen Square.

The one thing that Americans old enough to remember the news of 1989 will recall is that iconic image of one man, never identified, bravely standing in front of a row of tanks, moving to the left when the tanks tried to go around him, and then moving to the right when it went the other way. That symbolic standoff occurred on June 4, 32 years ago today, the day after Chinese troops attacked pro-democracy demonstrators camped in Tiananmen Square. Time magazine called it one of the 100 most influential images of all time. Ironically, the image is banned in China.

We don’t know who the man was, or what happened to him after the standoff.

What is the one thing Americans know and understand about China? The country’s government is oppressive, at least some Chinese people cannot stand it and want to change it, and the regime cracks down on dissent and opposition ruthlessly and brutally.

The Chinese government hasn’t changed its character very much since the brutal crackdown Tiananmen Square. Sure, the Chinese market has opened up economically, and lots of Chinese are wealthier than they were in 1989. But the regime is still authoritarian, repressive, secretive, collecting a series of human rights abuses that read like a demon’s resume. Oh, and the genocide, which feels like it really ought to be a dealbreaker for any international agreements. Thankfully, the Chinese government has not succeeded in completely stomping out all resistance or defiance, at home or abroad.

Are there small pockets of people in this world who cannot distinguish between the Chinese government and the Chinese people? Yes. We call those people “morons,” and their kind has always existed. The rest of us can distinguish between the two, and are under no obligation to limit our inquiries into the origin of the pandemic because of how morons may respond to the revelations.

PHOTO GALLERY: Tiananmen Square Protests

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