What happened to the Tank Man?


June 4  marks the 28th anniversary of what has come to be known as the “Tiananmen Square massacre,” when Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed civilians, mostly students, bringing a sudden and bloody halt to the protest movement for reforms which is referred to by the Communist Party as “June 4th Counter-Revolutionary Rebellion.” But now that name in a toned down version is referred to as the “June 4th Incident.”                                         

Several hundred of the 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters sit face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People during the illegal protest A.P

Since the entire morbid event is massively censored in China, only people who were there at the event or lost someone dear live with painful memories of the event but for the present generation it just remains stories shared by their parents and relatives. Thousands died as protesters demanding liberalization were met with extreme force.

Attempts to discuss, commemorate and demand justice for what happened have been forcefully curbed, with no public discussion allowed. Since 1989 many people have been imprisoned for commemorating events or questioning the official line.

The morning after the mayhem

On June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military violently suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests, this picture of the ‘Tank Man’ symbolic of David and Goliath sent shockwaves throughout the entire world. The sheer strength of this photo — one unarmed man, alone and helpless against several tanks — struck a chord with the entire globe, except for China’s leaders. Today, 28 years later, we still don’t know who that man was and what happened to him, since the entire thing is massively censored in China.                                      

Where is the iconic protester of the 20th century?

One thing for the young or old, that has endured is the image of the “Tank Man” seared in the public memory, a brave face of defiance of an oppressive regime. Twenty-eight years later, his identity is still a mystery. He is called simply Tank Man. Every year on the anniversary of the crackdown, Chinese bloggers pay homage to him with imitations and parodies of the face-off.

This ordinary man in black trousers and white shirt carrying shopping bags in each hand had the most awe-inspiring guts to block the path of the tanks, even as they gunned their engines. He climbed onto the first tank banging on the hatchet and he appeared to speak to the soldiers inside. When he stepped back down in front of the tank, two men ran into the street and pulled him away. Nobody knows if those two men were Chinese security or some well meaning people who wanted to keep him out of harm’s way. The confrontation became one of the most enduring images of the pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests that swept China that year.

Denials and Disbelief

Still to this day, within the Communist Party, they say that the United States and “Western imperialist forces” are continuing to plot to bring down the Communist Party of China. So, in some ways the experience of Tiananmen Square was a seminal experience that the Party had, that it used to convince itself that America wanted to take China down.

Courtesy: AP, Pulitzer Files