It's one of the enduring images of the late 20th century. A simple act of defiance and courage. Twenty-five years ago, on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese army's deadly crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, a single, unarmed young man stood his ground before a column of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace. He had grocery bags in his hands and was obviously just passing when, on impulse, he made a remarkable stand, very likely a fatal one.
This extraordinary confrontation became an icon of the struggle for freedom around the world. Chinese secret police confiscated most of the film and photos taken at the scene, but a few made it out.
We know him simply as Tank Man. I had this photo pinned above my drawing board for years.
His identity remains a mystery. His name may be Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student. Speculation continues to circulate about Tank Man’s fate. Thousands of Chinese were imprisoned for their involvement in the protests, some of them kept in jail for almost their entire lives. Others– the number is unknown– were executed. Many of the student protestors on the Square were shot in the back of the head. No one has been able to determine whether Tank Man was among them. China continues to officially claim it doesn't know his identity, which is laughable, of course.
Is Tank Man an enduring symbol? Sadly, no. All around the world, when given the choice, totalitarianism is replaced with even more brutal theocracies. As a species, we seem to long for repression, as long as we can choose its form. I fear his sacrifice was for naught. Economic freedom, at least for the elite, came to China, but not political or intellectual freedom. The authorities have effectively erased him, and this image, from collective Chinese thought. Only a few Chinese have ever seen this picture, or know when and where it occurred. As for the "democratic" world, western capitalists didn't hesitate for a second after Tiananmen Square in their lustful embrace of cheap Chinese labor and lax regulation. China was, and is, their industrial wet dream.
There are rumors that Tank Man was put to death by a firing squad a few months after the protests. China executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined, although the exact number is a state secret. The only official word of his fate came In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, when former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin said he couldn’t confirm whether the man was alive or not. He said in English, “I think never, never killed.”
Who are we to claim the moral high ground? Here in the US, as we race toward plutocracy, protests (at least from the left) are brutally repressed. We are free to vent online, but if the authorities deem you a true threat, whatever that is, your every move is tracked, your emails and phone calls monitored, or they simply label you a "terrorist" and you disappear into a secret "justice" system, stripped of rights and locked up in solitary. American citizens are executed by drones, without due process or even a trial, or gunned down in the streets by a militarized police force that seldom is restrained or punished for its excesses. Over 2.2 million Americans, 1 in 10, are imprisoned, most for minor drug crimes, many in for-profit supermax prisons. Sociopath billionaires control every level of government and public life, and manipulate gullible fools into doing their bidding.
Just keep your trap shut, watch Netflix and max out those credit cards. We're the greatest country on earth, remember?
Would you stand up to the tanks?