June 4 Special: What Happened to the Iconic ‘Tank Man’?

On June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military violently suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests, this picture of the "Tank Man" symbol of David and Goliath sent shockwaves throughout the entire world.

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Tank man of China
Tank Man of China stood in front of a moving tank convoy at Tiananmen Square.

June 4 marks the 31st anniversary of what has come to be known as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre,” when Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed civilians, mostly students, bringing a sudden and bloody halt to the protest movement for reforms.

Since the entire morbid event is massively censored in China, only people who were there at the event or lost someone dear live with painful memories of the event but for the present generation, it just remains stories shared by their parents and relatives. Thousands died as protesters demanding liberalization were met with extreme force.

Each year Chinese activists try to dodge police and censors to commemorate the event. Countless people come out on the streets in Hong Kong to tell people that they have not forgotten the 4th June killings, much to the chagrin of Mainland China. A couple of years ago Hong Kong held vigils in memory of Tiananmen dead that attracted over 100,000 people, many from mainland China made the trip. Of course, it did not go well with China. Attempts to discuss, commemorate, and demand justice for what happened have been forcefully curbed, with no public discussion allowed. Since 1989 many people have been imprisoned for commemorating events or questioning the official line.

The morning after the mayhem

Tiananmen Square MassacreOn June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military violently suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests, this picture of the “Tank Man” symbol of David and Goliath sent shockwaves throughout the entire world. The sheer strength of this photo — one unarmed man, alone and helpless against several tanks — struck a chord with the entire globe, except for China’s leaders. Today, 31 years later, we still don’t know who that man was and what happened to him, since the entire thing is massively censored in China.

The Chinese authorities began to hunt down those involved in the demonstrations. Thousands of people were detained, tortured, imprisoned, or executed after unfair trials charged with “counter-revolutionary” crimes. The Chinese government has never acknowledged the true events surrounding the Tiananmen massacre. It remains a taboo topic in China, with authorities banning all mention of the protest even today.

Where is the iconic protestor of the 20th century?

One thing for the young or old, that has endured is the image of the “Tank Man” seared in the public memory, a brave face of defiance of an oppressive regime. Thirty years later, his identity is still a mystery. He is called simply Tank Man. Every year on the anniversary of the crackdown, Chinese bloggers pay homage to him with imitations and parodies of the face-off.

This ordinary man in black trousers and white shirt carrying shopping bags in each hand had the most awe-inspiring guts to block the path of the tanks, even as they gunned their engines. He climbed onto the first tank banging on the hatchet and he appeared to speak to the soldiers inside. When he stepped back down in front of the tank, two men ran into the street and pulled him away. Nobody knows if those two men were Chinese security or some well-meaning people who wanted to keep him out of harm’s way. The confrontation became one of the most enduring images of the pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests that swept China that year.

The Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy Movement in China said in 1998 that it had obtained official party documents that showed authorities had no idea what happened to him. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin said he couldn’t confirm whether the man was arrested or not. He broke from speaking to Walters through an interpreter and said in English, “I think never, never killed.”

Bruce Herschensohn, a former deputy special assistant to former US President Richard Nixon, told the President Club in 1999 that Tank Man was executed 14 days later.

Others claim he was later put to death by a firing squad a few months after the protests. Many, however, remain hopeful Tank Man is still alive and may have no idea of the intrigue his picture has created thanks to China’s strict censorship of the image.

Photographers recall that single defining moment

Though it was Jeff Widener’s photograph that was published first, there was more than one “Tank Man” photo. If for some reason you have doubts of credibility, mind you there was no photoshop those days! Four photographers captured the encounter that day from the Beijing Hotel, overlooking Changan Avenue (the Avenue of Eternal Peace), their lives forever linked by a single moment in time. “I think his action captured peoples’ hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him,” said Charlie Cole, one of the photographers.

Denials and Disbelief

There are still the naysayers and the conspiracy theory guys and China of course who still deny the Tiananmen Square massacre and blame the US for fomenting the Tiananmen Square protests.

There are all kinds of speculation about the Tank Man’s disappearance. Some say he quietly slipped back into a life of anonymity or migrated to Taiwan, whereas others believe that he was executed by a firing squad or is still serving a prison term. Whatever it may be, the Tank Man is immortal with an iconic status in the pages of world history.

Not everyone was as lucky as the ‘Tank Man’ to escape death

When the Tiananmen Square Massacre comes to mind, many people think of the Tank Man, but to Fang Zheng, that represents one part only. The reality was most tanks did not stop.

On June 4, 1989, at around 6 a.m. Fang Zheng a student at Beijing Sport University with his classmates had gone to Tiananmen Square to appeal for freedom, and to call for an end to corruption in the Chinese regime. They were ambushed by tanks and smoke bombs were thrown their way to obscure their vision.

Fang Zheng noticed a girl faint due to the smoke attack. He tried to help her when a tank quickly appeared to crush both of them. Zheng pushed the girl to the side and saved her. However, he had no time to run. “The last thing I remember is seeing the white of my bone sticking out of my leg,” he said. “That was the last image before I lost consciousness.”

“I hope everyone can remember this,” he said, adding he knows of 11 people who were crushed to death, with still others injured like him. The first thing the Party wanted to be was for us to shut up. They didn’t want us to tell other people.”

But he knew he couldn’t remain silent on this state-approved mass murder of citizens. For telling the truth, he was arrested, his home was ransacked by police, he was unable to get a job, and he had restricted freedom.

As an athlete, Fang Zheng wanted to participate in international sports competitions for the disabled, but his rights were stripped by the Communist Party, for fear his story would get out. He was even denied a passport to leave the country. By the 2008 Beijing Olympics, foreign journalists were keen to interview Fang Zheng. The Public Security Bureau got wind of the upcoming interview and told Zheng that if he declined the interview and didn’t introduce the journalist to other victims of the Massacre to interview, they’d issue him a passport.

Zheng complied and was finally afforded a passport on Aug. 28, 2008. With help from the U.S. government, he and his family immigrated to the United States.

A similar but more harrowing plight has befallen the nation’s Falun Gong practitioners, who are subject to forced organ harvesting at the hands of the state.

Falun Gong Group Exercise

Falun Gong is a free-of-charge exercise and meditation practice with moral teachings based on Truthfulness-Compassion-Tolerance. The healthy practice became so popular in China that former Chinese dictator Jiang Zemin sought to ban and eliminate it.

Just like how Fang Zheng suffered for telling people the truth about the Massacre, Falun Gong practitioners too are harassed and even jailed, tortured, and killed for speaking to people about the truth of the Communist Party’s persecution.

“The price of telling the truth in China is still quite high, that is the current reality,” confirms Zheng.

Fang Zheng hopes that a good system replaces the Chinese Communist Party, but argues that it won’t happen until more people stand up to expose the regime’s crimes against humanity and break through the propaganda, brainwashing, and thought manipulation and control.

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