Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square

Reading Thomas’ post yesterday on the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing reminded me of a PBS Frontline program I saw a few weeks ago. In the video of the time, he is shown standing in front of and blocking a column of tanks and, although one could not hear his words, his gestures seemed to say, “Get out of here.” TIME magazine wrote of this unnamed rebel, With a single act of defiance, a lone Chinese hero revived the world's image of courage.

Eventually, two men ran into the video picture and pulled the tank man away. Whether they were his comrades protecting him or government security agents arresting him is not known. Neither is the name and fate of the tank man. Yet, his courage has become a symbol for all who would oppose oppression and injustice.

In the Frontline program, Robin Monroe, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has attempted to identify and determine the eventual fate of the Tank Man, said of him:

We know what he stood for. … [H]e didn't need to have a name. He spoke for the masses, the many who'd been silenced on June Fourth. He was all of them, you know. He didn't need a name because the point he made, everyone got it. It will endure long after this regime has become history.
To me, the tank man was a heroic man at a heroic moment in the midst of a lot of heroic people. Whatever his name and his fate, his courageousness is an inspiration to all who are called to the vocation of peacemaking and justice.


  1. I always wondered what happened to the soldier driving the tank. They were obviously being sent to kill people, but he was unable to kill the man standing right in front of him.

    (I noticed some sources say 3 June, some say 4 June. Since China is half a world away, the date depends on which side of the international date line you're on.)

  2. JD’S ROSE: Yes, scary. At the beginning, it was a beautiful thing to watch. It lasted for about six weeks: first the students and then the workers joined—more and more people gathering in Tiananmen Square—until on some days there were more than 100,000 people there.

    The world’s media was there and we here in the U.S. watched it on TV. I really thought that the power of the Communist dictatorship had been broken. Then the tanks came.

    THOMAS: You make an interesting point. In the years since Tiananmen Square I have read that the troops brought in to bring to an end the demonstrations did not know what was going on—or what had been going on—since the Chinese government had blacked out to China all of the media coverage that was available to the rest of the world.

    Since the tank man stood in front of the lead tank of the column, which was probably commanded by an officer, I am sure that the officer was confused. He had probably been led to believe he would face armed revolutionaries, but here was a single man, who climbed on the deck of his tank, banged on the hatch until he opened it, and then demanded that he and his tanks withdraw. Wow! What a situation!

  3. I'd like to offer couple more references in addition to PBS Frontline's "The Tank Man", where it reported the fact students were allowed to leave peacefully once the troops arrived, and Chinese government did investigate this, and release casualty figure of 240 some dead (incidentally in-line with our own NSA intel estimate.)

    An article by Gregory Clark on pack journalism:

    "the so-called massacre was in fact a mini civil war as irate Beijing citizens sought to stop initially unarmed soldiers sent to remove students who had been demonstrating freely in the square for weeks. When the soldiers finally reached the square there was no massacre."

    An article by Columbia Journal Review on passive journalism:

    "as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.
    Hundreds of people, most of them workers and passersby, did die that night, but in a different place and under different circumstances."

    [Just for reference, throwing molotov cocktail at riot police is a crime in US.]