The guy in the photo came to be known as The Tank Man, for standing defiantly in front of a column of tanks in Beijing’s Tianamen Square, exactly 25 years ago today, June 4, 1989.
That morning the Chinese military came down hard on the Tiananmen Square protestors who had been gathering to protest the demise of a well-respected liberal reformer, Hu Yaobang and to demand more openness and freedom of choice.
The man stood in the middle of the wide avenue, directly in the path of a column of approaching T-59 tanks. He wore a white shirt and black pants, and 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 an 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, he appeared to shout into various openings in the tank’s turret. The man 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, leaped in front of the vehicle once again and quickly reestablished the man–tank standoff.
Video footage shows that two figures in blue attire, probably cops, then pulled the man away and disappeared with him into a nearby crowd, and the tanks continued on their way.
The man some have identified as one Wang Weilin, achieved widespread international recognition from his defiance, but little is known about his fate after the confrontation that day.
Even today, Chinese censors still ban any direct mention of the tragic crackdown. Internet searches in China with keywords such as ‘June 4’, ‘Tiananmen Square’, or ‘Zhao Ziyang’ (an official who was sympathetic to the student protests) will yield nothing.
But China and the ordinary Chinese have prospered. I am hoping that Wang Weilin is alive and that he is enjoying the fruits of China’s economic miracle like the rest of his compatriots. If so, I wonder if he realizes that, had he and his fellow protestors succeeded in toppling the communist regime, he would most likely be living in another anarchic hell-hole like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or Syria, definitely not the lifestyle he surely must be enjoying today.
Democracy is a myth that looks its best when it remains that way – a myth.