The concept of governmental tyranny is often difficult to grasp to those living in more democratic nations, and media output and literature become key in growing to understand it’s implications. Serving to heighten this political perspective is “The Wheels of Freedom: Bicycles in China” by Fred Strebeigh, which describes China’s bicycle ban in 1989 and subsequent protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The bicycle provided significant growth and freedom within Chinese culture, and Strebeigh endeavors to communicate this to readers.
Illustrating this, he defends the will of the people to preserve their right to ride them in the face of government opposition, and the tragedy imposed by political oppression.
Upon the bicycle’s introduction to the people of China in the early 20th century, many looked to it through eyes of bewilderment. A fascinating and not yet popularized machine, it was most commonly ridden by members of affluent societies. As it’s newness wore off, however, it slowly became available those of the more humble classes, and in place of the word “bicycle”, the term “foreign horse” found it’s use in the minds and mouths of the masses.
Strebeigh includes that the term “foreign” communicated the people’s feelings of admiration for the bicycle while alluding to the fact that it was modern. The peasantry of China found themselves with the deepest sense of admiration for the “foreign horse”. To them, the thought of owning one brought to mind the ease it could bring to their everyday lives, as they often carried burdensome loads on their backs.
Yet, the low supply and thus high cost of the bicycle made it’s acquisition impractical for them.
In response to the desire, the government later began regulating higher production rates of the bicycle to readily supply them to the impoverished and raise morale. However, the term “foreign horse” was banned in light of it’s glorification of another nation’s ingenuity, highlighting the extremes of the Chinese government to exercise their sovereign of the people. In it’s place, the name “self-running cart”. This served to express the government sentiment that the people could have what they wanted, but only at it’somplete jurisdiction. The people tolerated the name change of their beloved bicycles, as the trade-off of name for it’s widespread distribution was easy enough, and many still used it’s original moniker in private. Following it’s popularization, the lives of many saw an enrichment in quality. The dignity of the people improved, as it granted them new freedoms and eased the stress of everyday tasks, allowing for flourishing business and connectedness within communities.
Perhaps stated best, Strebeigh wrote of it’s wide use, “Everywhere, cycles kept life rolling” (Strebeigh). In addition to heightening the commerce of societies, it introduced the occupation of bicycle repair, which Stebeigh revered as perhaps the “freest” job in China. In it’s praise, he wrote, “A hard worker needed only a street corner and a few tools. Before his eyes bikes would inevitably break down and, if he was skilled, clients would multiply.
Bicycle repair seemed to offer an extension of what the bike itself offered and what so many Chinese sought: modest dignity, new choices, ample freedom. ” (Strebeigh). Bike repair was a choice outside of the typical, and entirely pursued as an individual pleased. Sadly, it was the bicycles issuance of dignity, choices, and freedom that that ultimately inflicted threat upon the Chinese government. They understood that with bike ownership, the people were growing to a height of advantage.
It was their supposition that, if the people continued in such a fashion, government control perhaps had the potential to become menial. To ensure that their ultimate authority was not being overlooked, a ban was placed on bicycles within China. News of this did not come amicably to the people, and their response was protest. It was Tianenmen Square in Bejing which saw the organization of a large-scale demonstration which rallied for government reform. It lasted weeks, and ended upon the mobilization of troops to the area.
Their invasion was destructive and resulted in the loss of many lives as troops initiated the use of tanks and weaponry to control the people. In media coverage, it was not the bloodied bodies of victims that were aired on television screens in Chinese homes, but rather the depiction of bicycles which had been crushed by the military. Of it, Strebeigh writes, “They wanted to show crushed dignity, crushed humanity, crushed freedom–so much that the bicycle means in China. ” (Strebeigh). This image was a wise devise of the government.
They knew what the bicycle represented to the people, and knew that to show it destroyed would communicate their dominance and triumph. The concept of tyrannical rule and its implied bleakness are often incomprehensible, or altogether unrecognized by the people of more democratic countries given their many freedoms. With the words of Fred Strebeigh, however, perspective expands. The honor of an object as seemingly simple as a bicycle becomes worthy of defense, even dying for, and the tragedy of oppressive rule becomes very real.
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