Sunday, June 5, 2022

#Tiananmen33: Remembering the Tank Men

"Seeking government accountability for the massacre in accordance with the law is our legitimate right. For 33 years, we have been pursuing the three demands of “truth, compensation, and accountability” in a peaceful and rational manner, calling for a dialogue with the government through the legal process to resolve the issues related to the June Fourth massacre." -  Tiananmen Mothers, June 1, 2022

Nonviolent moment: Tank Men face off in Beijing on June 5, 1989

On June 5, 1989 in Beijing, following the Chinese Communist Party's massive and bloody crackdown  on thousands of Chinese students and workers on June 3rd and 4th after six weeks of protests that began in Tiananmen Square and spread across 400 cities in China something remarkable happened in the midst of all the horror and terror. 

A man risked all to protest what had taken place. Wearing a white t-shirt, black trousers, and carrying what appeared to be a shopping bag he walked out on the north edge of Tiananmen Square, along Chang'an Avenue and faced down a column of Type-59 tanks.

Wider perspective of the Tank Men protest with the full column of tanks

Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor and former Chinese political prisoner and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China in his important 2022 article in Newsweek provides the full significance and context of what happened.

"I was near Tiananmen Square in the early morning on June 4, just as gunfire began. At one point, I was so close to the soldiers that I shouted to them in their trucks and told them not to shoot. We even sang songs that every Chinese knows, trying to touch their hearts. But when they received the order, they just opened fire. I saw many killed, including 11 students who were chased and run over by tanks on that fateful day."

Photos appeared of what remained after a tank ran over a student, and this is what Tank Man was in danger of becoming.

Human body crushed to pieces by PLA's tanks.

In the video of the confrontation, the lead tank tried to drive around him, but the lone man repeatedly ran in front of the tank to prevent its passing. The tank driver turned off his engine and the rest of the column of tanks followed suit. 

The protester climbed on top of the tank and began to talk with him. Eventually he climbed back down and the tank driver turned the engines on but the protester once again blocked the tank column.

Jianli makes a powerful observation about this dynamic between the two men in the same OpEd in Newsweek.

"The Tank Man photo was taken the next day, on June 5, the morning after, when the massacre was still ongoing. By any measure, this image is one of heroism. But how many heroes do we see?

Nearly nine years after the picture was taken, the writer Pico Iyer said: "The heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut, and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot."

Not only did the driver refuse to kill, but he undoubtedly disobeyed orders and risked—and perhaps received—punishment in order to save a countryman's life."

We do not know the identities of either Tank Man, or what happened to them, but we do know that for one moment, in the midst of a blood bath perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party, humanity and dignity triumphed over repression in this particular case.

For more information visit:

Standoff At Tiananmen
How Chinese Students Shocked the World with a Magnificent Movement for Democracy and Liberty that Ended in the Tragic Tiananmen Massacre in 1989

Virtual Museum of China '89

Screams for help at China's secret 'black jails' - 27 Apr 09 AlJazeera

Seeking Justice, Chinese Land in Secret Jails / NY Times

A piece of red cloth by Cui Jian (music video - song sang by him in the Square)

Frontline Documentary Tankman

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