They wouldn't let me write about my opinions about the state
And freedom of expression they would never tolerate
And the military secrets that I never did steal
I didn't start no violence, and there was nobody that I killed
One line from Rancid’s "Arrested in Shanghai" says: “So I protest the massacres at Tiananmen Square / My friends say yo, stay away man, you better not go fucking back there.” This line is a reference to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 (known in China as the June Fourth Incident) that occurred in Beijing, China, as the culminating event of a nationwide protest movement begun earlier that year.
Tianenman Square is the third largest city square in the world, located in Beijing, which is the second largest city in China by population (behind Shanghai). The Square has been the sight of numerous events of historical importance. In modern memory, it is probably most closely associated with the iconic image of the “Tank Man,” a lone Chinese citizen who stood before a column of People’s Liberation Army tanks on the morning after the PLA had opened fire and killed several hundred Chinese protesters. In video of the event, two blue-clothed figures appear and drag Tank Man into a nearby crowd. With that haunting image, Tank Man disappeared from the public forever.
The real identity of Tank Man has never been uncovered, nor have his whereabouts since the incident. There have been claims that he was executed shortly after, but this has never been confirmed. The Chinese government tried to use the incident as a show that its army was benevolent (because the tanks did not run him over), and so they have a vested interest in squelching news of the man’s (possible) execution. The image of the one little figure standing bravely before a column of tanks lives on, however, branded into the world’s memory and kept alive in digital space. Tank Man remains not only the defining image of the Tiananmen Square Protests, but also a powerful symbol for forces of protest around the world.
The Tiananmen Square Protests began on April 15, 1989, but they resulted from a movement that had been growing in China for years. Starting in 1978, the Chinese government had started to initiate a series of reforms within their nation that would make the transition from a fully State-run system to a free market system. As a result of events associated with this transition, inflation exploded to as high as 30 percent, all while officials abused their power to assign positions to their friends and family rather than to the most deserving candidates. Additionally, many State programs, which had formerly provided a large bulk of the best Chinese jobs available, were being drastically cut.
The tensions that resulted from these many factors led to a general unrest, particularly in the nation’s intellectual centers and universities. Starting with public speeches and political pamphleteering, the movement gained size and force until it eventually led to the peaceful occupation of several urban centers, most notably Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These occupations eventually prompted the Chinese government to declare martial law and deploy military forces.
Beijing protesters blockaded the main city thoroughfares and confronted the advancing forces. Ultimately, things escalated until the PLA opened fire on the city, killing several hundred.
After the protests, student leaders were arrested around the nation for their part in organizing and executing the movement. Several such leaders were arrested in Shanghai.
It is unclear, however, if Rancid is really telling the story of one specific Chinese citizen arrested in Shanghai, or if the character referenced in the song is an amalgamation of all unjustly detained citizens. Without specific information from the band, there is no way to know this detail, because so many thousands of people have been detained by the Chinese government.
One line from the song says: “And I don’t even know why, the truth seems like a lie.” This can be understood in the context of Chinese government’s repression, and seems to be consistent with the theme already established. The Chinese government actively censors and warps information to fit with their version of events, so that Chinese residents can never really be certain what is true and what is a lie, or what is history and what is propaganda.
In the face of these monstrous mechanical forces, the song’s narrator proclaims that his only weapon is his poetry. This weapon may seem trivial at first, maybe even ridiculous, but as the narrator goes on to say, it is influencing the entire world: “A transmitter beams my coordinates anywhere on Earth; And radio waves, surveillance, satellite burst; Open up your skull and let some knowledge come in; Crack open your cranium and let awareness begin.” Though the power of his or her poetry may be subtle, the narrator is keeping the fight alive in the minds and hearts of the people by spreading truth and hope.
In this way, perhaps, the song "Arrested in Shanghai" similarly becomes an act of war launched against those forces that would silence, marginalize, and massacre the voices of dissent. The song serves the same purpose as the poetry of its narrator: get the truth out on the airwaves and make sure that the atrocities committed by the Chinese government do not go forgotten or forgiven.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.