If you don’t remember the Tank Man, watch the video below. If you’re too young to remember the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, then you must watch the video. If you have managed to stumble on this blog from China, please watch the video. Remember what he did. I write to help you remember why he did it — I say he is the greatest hero in China’s five-thousand year history.
At the end of his hundred and fifty seconds of distilled and pure bravery, a number of other people came out and grabbed him and pulled him out of the way of the tanks. He seemed to go willingly and these people do not appear to have been police. They seem to have been people who became convinced that this guy was about to get shot and tried to save his life. They may have been his friends; they may have been strangers to him.
Here’s the background.
On April 15, 1989, young people, particularly including college students, began gathering in public places around China. The protests were precipitated by the death of the former Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang. Hu had, in his years after stepping down from party leadership, condemned the harsh and authoritarian practices of the government under the stewardship of Deng Xiaoping. Hu openly admired the policy of glasnost pursued by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviety Union and called for implementation of “rapid reform” of the Chinese government. Because his policies were seen as critical of Deng and his clique of pro-authoritarian leaders, Hu had been forced to resign and to publish a humiliating “self-criticism,” which was circulated as another example of the evils of the repressive regime within the universities of China. So his death marked an opportunity for pro-democracy students to stage public memorial services in his honor.
Starting early on April 15, the day he died, and gaining force over the next several days, students began to congregate in Tiananmen Square, and by April 18, 10,000 of them demanded that the government revise the official obituary of Hu. For a day or so, they were dispersed, but after Hu’s funeral, more than a hundred thousand protestors gathered to march back on Beijing’s only major open space near the centers of government.
This was thought by the government to be too many people to disperse using the city’s available police force. So the government tried to use its favorite weapon – propaganda. Official state newspapers distributed an op-ed piece written by Deng, who wrote:
After the memorial meeting, an extremely small number of people with ulterior purposes continued to take advantage of the young students’ feelings of grief for Comrade Hu Yaobang… This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance. Its essence is to, once and for all, negate the leadership of the CPC [Chinese Communist Party] and the socialist system… All comrades in the party and the people throughout the country must soberly recognize the fact that our country will have no peaceful days if this disturbance is not checked resolutely.
This only added fuel to the first and half again as many people came to Tiananmen Square to raise their voices in favor of reform and against repression. Some leaders emerged out of the crowds, and they issued a written demand to the government for freedom of the press, an end to corruption within the state, the resignation of Deng Xiaopang, and abolition of the Chinese Communist Party.
When propaganda did not work, the Party tried persuasion (and, we may assume, some level of intimidation as well). Protestors were identified as much as possible and overt representatives of the Party were sent to go speak with their families. Although the official line is that the Party tried to explain what kinds of benefits would be available to the protestors if they gave up the ghost and returned to their daily, ordinary lives, it seems safe to assume that along with the many carrots dangled there were also a few sticks raised. Implied in promises to provide medical care for ailing family members and opportunities for further educational and career advancement are the threats that such benefits can be withheld.
But this national network of party activity was so extensive that it actually strained the resources of the party and its network of informants and secret police (many of whom could not be contacted and activated for fear of revealing their identities to the friends and family they were supposed to be spying on. So party apparatchiks who were tapped to do the work were diverted from their main jobs of censoring the media. Although it took the Chinese media a few days to realize that suddenly, their minders had left them unattended, they figured it out soon enough and began broadcasting live coverage of the protests in Tiananmen Square across the country. This would prove decisive in making the protests a truly national symbol and a truly national crisis.
The protestors were, by contrast to what we might expect to have seen in Europe or the United States, orderly and law-abiding. There was peace, and the majority of the crowd demonstrated great respect to the government by seizing and handing over to police on the fringes of the square a man who, in an excess of contempt, had thrown ink on a poster of Mao Zedong. On the day that Mikhail Gorbachev came for a previously-scheduled state visit, the protestors sang socialist songs.
The hunger strike began at some point in mid-May. The leaders of the protest began to not eat and display their starvation to show solidarity with the lower classes of the cities, who they claimed had been neglected by a corrupt and elitist government. When Gorbachev came, the world media came with him and extensive coverage of the protests was broadcast around the world. Gorbachev had his meetings and left, but the global media stayed on to cover this most dramatic of events — China appeared poised on the precipice of a popular revolution.
Immediately after Gorbachev departed, a significant dispute about how to handle the protests arose within the ranks of the governmental leadership. One faction, led by a Hu’s successor Zhao Ziyang, urged a soft response, while another group, led by Li Peng, urged a forceful crackdown. Zhao went so far as to wade into the protests with a megaphone, urging the students to end their hunger strike and not give up their lives so cheaply. The point at which he probably cut his own throat politically was when he told the protestors to look to their own futures, saying of his generation (the ones holding the reins of power), “We are already old, it doesn’t matter to us any more.” It mattered to Li and his group, and they eventually persuaded Deng to go along with their preferred response to the situation.
Li had martial law declared on May 20, 1989. Zhao protested that this was not necessary, and Li called for a vote of no confidence. Zhao lost and was unceremoniously ousted from power. However, the heavy-handed consolidation of power in the hands of the hard-liners threatened to cause rifts in the army itself; the regular army detachments stationed near Beijing were thought to be sympathetic to Zhao and unreliable against the civilian protesters now blocking entrance into the city as part of their demands for democratic reform. So the 27th and 28th People’s Liberation Armies, which then combined infantry and armor divisions based in a more westerly province, were mobilized and given orders to enter Beijing and restore order.
On May 29, a statue, called the “Goddess of Democracy,” was brought into the square, to the amazement of the international media. She was more than thirty feet tall and constructed of papier-mache over a light metal skeleton by art students at Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts. The government threatened to take the license away from any truck driver who hauled the Goddess to Tiananmen Square, so the art students hired six rickshaws instead. For six days, the Goddess held court in Tiananmen Square, and something like three hundred thousand people gathered in the square to see her unveiling. The sculptors of the statute proclaimed at the unveiling:
At this grim moment, what we need most is to remain calm and united in a single purpose. We need a powerful cementing force to strengthen our resolve: That is the Goddess of Democracy. Democracy…You are the symbol of every student in the Square, of the hearts of millions of people. …Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! …The statue of the Goddess of Democracy is made of plaster, and of course cannot stand here forever. But as the symbol of the people’s hearts, she is divine and inviolate. Let those who would sully her beware: the people will not permit this! …On the day when real democracy and freedom come to China, we must erect another Goddess of Democracy here in the Square, monumental, towering, and permanent. We have strong faith that that day will come at last. We have still another hope: Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts! Long live the people! Long live freedom! Long live democracy!
The 27th People’s Liberation Army arrived on the scene on June 2. Its entry to the city was actively resisted by civilians, who overturned buses and other cars and set them on fire to prevent the entry of the military vehicles. The 27th responded by shooting tear gas and live ammunition into crowds of civilians, and firing tank shells at oncoming vehicles and the makeshift barricades. Awaiting arrival of the lighter infantry from the 28th PLA, the armored columns positioned themselves strategically throughout the city, encircling Tiananmen Square and the universities. There were some civilian victories caused by the massive number of protests — one armored personnel carrier was actually overturned by a mob and set on fire; the soldiers inside were killed by the mob.
In the square itself, black armbands began circulating amongst the protesters, and some slipped away in fear of what might happen next. They were prescient. The first wave came in the form of a light infantry maneuver on the morning of June 3, from three armored personnel carriers deployed at the primary entry and exit points for the square. The soldiers were given orders to fire on the crowd, and they executed them. When they ran out of ammunition, they conducted bayonet charges. Some print reporters described seeing soldiers with AK-47s hosing down the crowd with live fire. Some sought refuge from the hail of bullets and blades in the makeshift bus barricades; when the soldiers approached and removed these people, they were savagely beaten with truncheons, and much of this violence was captured on video. (You can find it on the internet if you care to look for it; I’ll not embed it here.) Some of the protesters fought back with Molotov cocktails, but there were few, if any, firearms.
Once the firing began, the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square cleared in a hurry. That’s when the tanks moved in. An American reporter on the scene described seeing tanks actually crushing protesters to death under their treads. By the early morning hours of June 4, Tiananmen Square was cleared. Hundreds had died in the square, and thousands more — their parents, who came hours later to try and find their missing children — were fired upon indiscriminately, in multiple waves, by the infantry occupying the square. The soldiers killed the driver of an ambulance that came to tend to the wounded. The China Red Cross initially published a figure of 2,600 dead on June 4, but that figure was retracted after the government threatened to arrest the leaders of the China Red Cross. The official figure is about 200 dead and about 500 wounded on June 4 in Beijing. It is thought the true number of casualties is between 7,000 to 10,000.
Scenes of slaughter like this were replicated in every city in China on June 4. No one knows how many people died, how many were shot and wounded.
More tanks and infantry continues to pour into the city as the remaining portions of the 27th and 28th PLA arrived on the morning of June 5. That’s when Tank Man stood in front of the advancing column and, armed only with what looks like a shopping bag or a briefcase, briefly caused an advancing column of armor to stop on its deadly mission.
Newsweek photojournalist Charlie Cole is morally convinced, but lacks hard evidence to prove, that Tank Man was taken away from the scene by secret police, and executed within a few days of his unbelievable showdown. Other journalists who were on the scene point out that the people who took Tank Man away from the advancing column did not use physical force but instead guided him by the arm, a degree of gentleness unlike the more violent means employed by police when apprehending someone. A government official could not identify him when challenged by Time Magazine to do so, offering only the comment “I think never killed.” Cole’s leads have suggested Tank Man’s name was Wang Wei Lin, but he cannot confirm that. Another author researching the incident came up with the name Wang Ai-Min, but again, this relies on some dubious sources. Regardless of his name, if those were secret police who spirited the man away, it’s hard to imagine that he was not executed. China was put under intense diplomatic pressure to prove that the man was still alive and all right after things calmed down, and it has never done so.
But it’s hard to say. We should not forget that the protests in Beijing were being duplicated in nearly every major city in China at the time. This was a very serious crisis — not just several hundred college students smoking dope and engaged in hippie talk. Literally millions of people were demanding the immediate deposition of the government and its leaders. Cries of “down with the government” and “fascists stop killing” were frequently heard in protests around the nation. Deng and Li were right about one thing — China was on the brink of a revolution. Tens, if not hundreds, of police and soldiers were killed by pro-democracy protesters.
Had a charismatic leader with sufficient ambition stepped forward to lead it, it seems likely that portions of the PLA would have defected to the rebel side and there could very well have been civil war. A possibility exists, we will never be able to know how probable, that this revolution could have actually succeeded. The PRC may well have found itself deposed and replaced with a new form of government — one that would have had to have been more democratic than its predecessor, based on the strength and pervasiveness of the protests.
But that did not happen. The bad guys won. The Goddess of Liberty was rolled underneath the treads of a Chinese tank.
They won through the direct and brutal application of military force on innocent civilians. More people were killed trying to find loved ones in Tiananmen Square than had been killed in the square itself, even when soldiers were hosing down the crowd with automatic weapons. Parents paid a higher price in blood for daring to approach the square to learn their children were still alive or slain at the hands of their government than did the students who had been at the receiving end of the AK-47s and bayonets earlier that day.
They won by arresting a significant number of the intelligentsia that had formed the original core of the democracy movement. Thousands of college professors and student leaders around the country were rounded up and arrested, never to be heard from again. Many were able to plead for exile instead, and all have been refused re-entry into China to this day, even for short visits with their families.
They won by executing tens of thousands of arrested protesters from around the country after trials in kangaroo courts lacking even the most rudimentary forms of due process.
They won by purging any hint of sympathy for the protesters from within their own ranks. Zhao was not only stripped of his position within the Communist Party, he remained under house arrest until his death in 1991. Other reform-sympathetic leaders within the Party were arrested as well until they wrote public “self-criticisms” and other statements describing how they had “changed their minds” about the events of June 1989, and assigned to mid-level jobs in the western provinces. Journalists who expressed emotions of sadness or regret for the executions were fired from their jobs in state-run media.
They won by purging the event from their nation’s history. No one will talk about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Discussion of the summer of 1989 is not permitted in schools or universities. Simply put, the PRC has marshaled all of its available resources into attempting to erase the memory of those days from its history in an eerie replication of Winston Smith’s job editing history books for Oceania in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Journalists touring Beijing University have shown pictures of the Tank Man facing down the armored column to students in 2006, to be met with blank stares and uncomprehending comments. They’d never heard anything about Tiananmen Square as the site of a protest against the government. They have heard of the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution, but the Revolution of 1989 is, for them, a purely European even; what happened then is dismissed as an insignificant counterrevolutionary demonstration of a small group of malcontents. An anniversary protest in Hong Kong just ten weeks ago was reported in mainland China as a rally in support of the earthquake victims in Sichuan. If you grew up in China in the 1990’s, you might never know it happened at all.
They won by continuing to arrest, detain, and execute dissidents. Families of people who went missing in June of 1989 are labeled “dissidents” and arrested themselves. Every year as the anniversary approaches, the normally-tight security at Tiananmen Square is ratcheted up and no public assemblies are allowed at all, anywhere.
The bad guys won. They killed so many innocent people, people who wanted the freedom to think and write as they chose, people who wanted the right to vote for their own leaders, people who wanted a government more or less free from corruption and one-party control. Things that most Americans take for granted.
I haven’t cried much when writing this blog, ever. I can’t help but cry putting these words down, re-learning better now what was learned twenty years ago through shadows and fog and clouds of gunpowder. China’s leaders may try to edit Tiananmen Square from their country’s official memory. But let the rest of the world never forget it. If I haven’t made you cry about this, this episode of Nightline will.
Tank Man is a profound symbol of protest to repression. He demanded something from the tank – he is visibly shouting at the tank, asking a question or telling the tank to go away. I have always fancied that he said something like “Get out of my city! You’re not going to drive into the Square and attack all those kids!” And despite everything that had happened already, the tank driver hesitated, at least three times. For a few unbelievably pregnant seconds, the overwhelming military force of a brutally repressive government was stopped, by common decency, and nearly toppled a government.
Tank Man stands for all those kids, all those young people, all those Chinese citizens who stood up to their evil, repressive government, built a Goddess of Democracy and for seven glorious weeks made the Revolutions of 1989 a global, not just a European, world event. His identity has been lost to history forever, but if there was anyone, anywhere, who deserves the Big Brass Ones Award periodically dispensed from this blog, the Tank Man is him.