CHINA, HONG KONG : People hold candles to commemorate China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square events during a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2014. Up to 200,000 people were set to take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown, as China seeks to wipe the incident from memory. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez
During the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, one Chinese citizen stood in front of a line of oncoming tanks, in an attempt to prevent them from entering the Square. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful, his image was broadcast around the world in video and still footage, and he came to be known as “Tank Man,” or the Unknown Rebel, in a reference to his incredible act of bravery. Tank Man has become an iconic symbol of the Chinese democracy movement, and his image is familiar to many people around the world.
CHINA, BEIJING : Hostesses jump at Tiananmen square during the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 3, 2015.
Thousands of delegates from across China and the Chinese leadership will
gather for its annual legislature meetings from March 3 in Beijing. AFP
PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR
Producer Antony Thomas showed the iconic ‘Tank Man’ photo to a group of undergraduates at Beijing University - in 1989 the university had been the nerve center of the student movement that inspired the nationwide uprising. None of the students knew what the photo was. Here, journalists and China specialists discuss the government’s efforts to keep certain ideas and history from the Chinese people, including the picture and story of ‘tank man.’
Timothy Brook Professor of Chinese history, University of British Columbia:
“The media silence imposed on Tienanmen was huge. Chinese in China don’t know this image. They don’t see this image. This is not part of their visual repertoire. [The government] made a couple of propaganda videos in the summer of 1989, to sell [the Tienanmen] events in a certain way to the Chinese people, and those videos have clips showing very carefully selected events. But the visual record that we have living outside China is a very different one than Chinese people have.”
Jan Wong Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent:
“It is stunning that university students at Beida [Beijing University] would not know this picture [of the tank man]. On the other hand, China has so many secrets, and people understand that it’s dangerous to share information. I went back to Beijing University, where I had studied, to talk to my old teachers … and we didn’t talk about Tienanmen either at first. Of course I wanted to talk about Tienanmen, so I sort of waited and then eventually I slid in sideways to the subject, but that’s the only reason they talked about it. It’s not something that people would readily talk about because you just get into trouble. There is no upside to talking about it at this point.
I don’t know what it tells you about a country when you could have such a cataclysmic event as Tiananmen Square and then suddenly you lop off the reality for all the people coming after. … But the great thing about China is that history is valued so that it will come out one day. People will keep records, people will eventually write about this. It’s not that it’s disappeared forever. You know, in Chinese history, each dynasty has secrets that it suppresses, and then it’s up to the next dynasty to write the true history of the previous dynasty. Each dynasty writes its own propaganda, the next dynasty writes the true history, so I assume this will happen in China, too.”
1989 - The Unknown Rebel risks his life to stop the progress of the tank column heading to Tienanmen Square. No one knows who was the man but some think he was executed by the authorities after this incident. The man is in Time’s Top 100 of the most influential people of the 20th century.
The incident took place near Tienanmen on Chang'an Avenue, which runs east-west along the south end of the Forbidden City in Beijing on June 5 1989, one day after the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the Tienanmen protests. The man placed himself alone in the middle of the street as the tanks approached, directly in the path of the armored vehicles. 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 repeatdly 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, tje man who was still standing within a meter or two from the sode of the lead tank leapt in front of the vehicle once again and quickly reestablished the man tank standoff. Video footage shows that 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 believes it was the PSB (Public Security Bureau) that pulled him away while Jan Wong believed that the men who pulled him away were only concerned civilians.
On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government presided over a brutal crackdown on student protesters, claiming the lives of hundreds or possibly thousands. It continues to be a contentious issue in both domestic and international politics, informing even what online searches you can run in China (Ex.: “never forget” is banned). Josh and Chuck mark this somber anniversary in today’s installment of This Day in History.