Why did the world react so severely to the image of the student rebel Wang Weilin facing down the Chinese Main Battle Tank during the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations in 1989 but was almost scandalously muted when Rachel Corrie died under an Israeli Armoured Bulldozer in the Gaza Strip last Sunday?
The subsequent fate of Wang Weilin is not clear, with conflicting reports either claiming that he has disappeared in the impenetrable depths of the Chinese penal system or he is back in the teeming millions of Beijing’s townships. Both participants were fighting in a heroic manner, one human against a main battle tank or an armoured bulldozer, an individual fighting against repression and heavy-handed state terrorism, perfect material for epics, patriotic songs and long institutional memories.
Yes, the Iraqi situation is practically swamping the airwaves, but still, Rachel Corrie is lamented in only a few isolated places, in Gaza City where the incident happened, in the International Solidarity Movement, a group to which she belonged and under whose auspices she was in Gaza City and her family. The main stream media has not picked this up and made it into a rallying cause, as it did with Wang Weilin; it has not become one of the iconic pictures or stories in the world-wide media. Rachel Corrie is not considered to be the supreme embodiment of resistance. Even the Arab media, which is usually very quick on such situations, hasn’t picked this up to any significant degree, even though there are powerful photographs.
It is very difficult to compare two almost unrelated incidents: One with a particularly penetrating and profoundly thought-provoking photo, vastly separated by distance, time, protagonists, ideologies, gender, origins and a whole host of other factors. Of course, the disinterest in Rachel Corrie’s case could be explained by the fact that Rachel Corrie was an American in Gaza City, photographed when burning the American flag and having participated in a mock trial where US President George W Bush was accused of war crimes.
There is one thing in common: Both of the incidents can be called as state terrorism. So, how come there was this storm of vituperation against China and relatively muted towards Israel? Why did almost every nation express "concern" at China while there is a deafening silence from the various nations? The hoary argument about Zionist controlled world wide media has been repeated ad nauseum and has to be treated with the contempt it deserves. Even factoring in the impact of the Iraq War, it is significant that the huge foreign offices of the various nations haven’t even mentioned this incident.
So, why am I going on about something, which on the one hand happened a long time back and on the other hand, has not been noticed? This aspect is particular important to India as it is frequently accused of engaging in state terrorism in Kashmir by Pakistan in the various international forums and in the media. With the exception of the local Pakistani media, almost no other media or state has taken the allegation seriously or has raised it to the level which we saw in the case of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China.
To a disinterested political science or international relations analyst, it is a fascinating issue, and warrants some comment. Israel and India are democracies while China has been described as a totalitarian regime. Why are democracies treated differently? Why is it that democracies are allowed more leeway when state power is used against its own citizens?
Democracies are evaluated on a different basis by other nations and western media as compared to totalitarian regimes. Democracies have the presence of a free press, an active judiciary, and institutional respect for individual rights. When protests like the Tiananmen Square happen in democracies, the international community or the media do not judge on the same criteria.
India and Israel both are democracies and have had incidents of such a nature. Who can forget the photograph of Mohamed Durra, the 12 year old child who was shot in his father’s arms, while crouching behind a barrel during the second Intifada? Who can forget the pictures and stories from the Ayodhya crisis, the pictures from the Gujarat riots or the long running Kashmir imbroglio?
There was muted international community protest and some murmurings in the media, but soon merged into the background and were forgotten soon after. No big specials running on the 10th anniversary as one would find on CNN or BBC for the Tiananmen Square Protests.
Of course, there are other reasons which can explain this different treatment meted out to the 3 nations mentioned, such as geo-politics, diplomacy etc., but democracies and in particular liberal democracies, as Francis Fukuyama posited, are the great white future hope of political development of mankind. Democracies are allowed to use, what some would call as unreasonable force, in the defence of their territorial integrity or as a reaction to terrorism/separatist violence.
While this latitude is comforting and may even raise comfort levels in the democracies, this latitude should not be taken for granted. There is an air of international activism around the globe. A single badly managed media event can have unforeseen and seriously damaging consequences. Media management, proper calibration of reaction force levels and good law and order coverage can obviate many a banana peel.
All this to be taken with a grain of salt!
(Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence from Manchester Business School. He works in the City of London in various capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British Universities.)