The Tank Man, or the Unknown Protester, is the nickname of an anonymous man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. The man achieved widespread international recognition due to the videotape and photographs taken of the incident. Some have identified the man as Wang Weilin (王維林), but the name has not been confirmed and little is known about him or of his fate after the confrontation that day.
The incident took place near Tiananmen on Chang'an Avenue, which runs east-west along the south end of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China on June 4, 1989, one day after the Chinese government's violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. The man stood in the middle of the wide avenue, directly in the path of a column of approaching Type 59 tanks. He held two shopping bags, one in each hand. As the tanks came to a stop, the man gestured towards the tanks with his bags. In response, the lead tank attempted to drive around the man, but the man repeatedly stepped into the path of the tank in a show of nonviolent action. After repeatedly attempting to go around rather than crush the man, the lead tank stopped its engines, and the armored vehicles behind it seemed to follow suit. There was a short pause with the man and the tanks having reached a quiet, still impasse.
Having successfully brought the column to a halt, the man climbed onto the hull of the buttoned-up lead tank and, after briefly stopping at the driver's hatch, appeared in video footage of the incident to call into various ports in the tank's turret. He then climbed atop the turret and seemed to have a short conversation with a crew member at the gunner's hatch. After ending the conversation, the man descended from the tank. The tank commander briefly emerged from his hatch, and the tanks restarted their engines, ready to continue on. At that point, the man, who was still standing within a meter or two from the side of the lead tank, leapt in front of the vehicle once again and quickly reestablished the man–tank standoff.
Video footage shows that two figures in blue attire then pulled the man away and disappeared with him into a nearby crowd; the tanks continued on their way. Eyewitnesses disagree with each other about the identity of the people who pulled him aside. Charlie Cole (there for Newsweek) believes it was the PSB (Public Security Bureau) that pulled him away, while Jan Wong (there for The Globe and Mail) believes that the men who pulled him away were only concerned local civilians. In April 1998, Time included the "Unknown Rebel" in a feature titled Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.
Identity and fate
Little is publicly known of the man's identity or that of the commander of the lead tank. Shortly after the incident, the British tabloid the Sunday Express named him as Wang Weilin (王维林), a 19-year-old student who was later charged with "political hooliganism" and "attempting to subvert members of the People's Liberation Army". However, this claim has been rejected by internal Communist Party of China documents, which reported that they could not find the man, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights. One party member was quoted as saying, "We can’t find him. We got his name from journalists. We have checked through computers but can’t find him among the dead or among those in prison." Numerous theories have sprung up as to the man's identity and current whereabouts.
There are several conflicting stories about what happened to him after the demonstration. In a speech to the President's Club in 1999, Bruce Herschensohn, former deputy special assistant to President Richard Nixon, reported that he was executed 14 days later; other sources say he was executed by firing squad a few months after the Tiananmen Square protests. In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that she believes from her interactions with the government press that they have "no idea who he was either," and that he's still alive, hiding in mainland China.
The government of the People's Republic of China has made few statements about the incident or the people involved. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, then-CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin was asked what became of the man. Jiang first stated (through an interpreter), "I can't confirm whether this young man you mentioned was arrested or not," and then replied in English, "I think...never killed" [sic]. At the time, the party's propaganda apparatus referred to the incident as showing the "humanity" of the country's military.
International notability and censorship
Internationally, the image of the lone man in front of the tank has come to symbolize the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and is widely considered one of the iconic images of the 20th century.
However, a PBS interview of six experts noted that the memory of the event appears to have faded in China, especially among younger Chinese people, due to lack of public discussion. Images of the protest on the internet have been censored in China. When undergraduate students at Beijing University, which was at the center of the incident, were shown copies of the iconic photograph some years afterwards, they "were genuinely mystified." One of the students thought that the image was "artwork." It is noted in the documentary Frontline: The Tank Man, that he whispered to the student next to him "89"—which led the interviewer to surmise that the student may have concealed his knowledge of the event.
One theory as to why the "Unknown Rebel" (if still alive) has never come forward is that he is unaware of his international recognition.
Five photographers managed to capture the event on film and get their pictures published in its aftermath. On June 4, 2009, another photographer released an image of the scene taken from ground level.
The most used photograph of the event was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile (800 meters) away from the scene. Widener was injured and suffering from flu. The image was taken using a Nikon FE2 camera through a Nikkor 400mm 5.6 ED IF lens and TC-301 teleconverter. Low on film, a friend hastily obtained a roll of Fuji 100 ASA color negative film, allowing him to make the shot. Though he was concerned that his shots were not good, his image was syndicated to a large number of newspapers around the world, and was said to have appeared on the front page of all European papers.
Another version was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos from the fifth floor of the Beijing Hotel. His has a wider field of view than Widener's, showing more tanks farther away. He was on the same balcony as Charlie Cole, and his roll of film was smuggled out of the country by a French student, concealed in a box of tea.
Charlie Cole, working for Newsweek and on the same balcony as Stuart Franklin, hid his roll of film containing Tank Man in a Beijing Hotel toilet, sacrificing an unused roll of film and undeveloped images of wounded protesters after the PSB raided his room, destroyed the two rolls of film just mentioned and forced him to sign a confession. Cole was able to retrieve the roll and have it sent to Newsweek. He won a World Press Award for a similar photo. It was featured in Life's "100 Photographs That Changed the World" in 2003.
On June 4, 2009, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the protests, Associated Press reporter Terril Jones revealed a photo he took showing the Tank Man from ground level, a different angle than all of the other known photos of the Tank Man. Jones has written that he was not aware of what he had captured until a month later when printing his photos.
Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters took several shots from room 1111 of the Beijing Hotel, but only the shot of Tank Man climbing the tank was chosen. It was not until several hours later that the photo of the man standing in front of the tank was finally chosen. When the staff noticed Widener's work, they re-checked Wah's negative to see if it was of the same moment as Widener's. Later, on March 20, 2013, in an interview by the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association (HKPPA), Wah told the story and added further detail. He told HKPPA that on the night of June 3, 1989, he was beaten by students while taking photos and was bleeding. A "foreign" photographer accompanying him suddenly said "I am not gonna die for your country" and left. Wah returned to the hotel. When he decided to go out again, the public security stopped him, so he stayed in his room, stood next to the window and eventually witnessed the Tank Man and took several shots on June 4, 1989.
Variations of the scene were also recorded by BBC film crews and transmitted across the world. One witness recounts seeing Chinese tanks early on June 4 crushing vehicles and people, just one day before this man stood in front of the tank column.
- Chinese democracy movement
- History of the People's Republic of China
- Human rights in the People's Republic of China
- List of peace activists
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