On June 5, 1989, a young man stood before a column of tanks blocking their path on Chang’an Boulevard in Beijing. His message was clear: The People’s Liberation Army needed to leave the city, and he was willing to give his life to ensure they heard it. In the buildings above, people watched from balconies as a tank turned to move past him. He jumped in front of them again, daring them to run him over. He even went so far as to climb on top of one to open the hatch and speak to the soldiers inside. What was said, nobody knows.
After a momentary standoff, the soldiers turned off their engines, and a group of people rushed into the street to whisk him away. He was never heard from again. Nobody knows who he was or whether he lived or died. Some have suggested that Chinese authorities caught up with him and killed him—a likely scenario. They were watching the scene with binoculars. They even searched a group of hotel rooms where Western journalists had been filming. The now famous footage had to be hidden inside a toilet tank to keep the authorities from seizing it.
When images of the scene did make it out of China, they swept the globe. President George Bush Sr. hailed the unknown man as a hero, and they called him the Tank Man. His act of bravery was put on t-shirts and billboards and plastered all over newspapers and magazines. He came to represent defiance, protest, and the strength of the many.
His small act is even more powerful, considering what happened less than 24 hours earlier. There could’ve been no doubt in the Tank Man’s mind that he was giving up his life. He was confronting the remnants of a military onslaught unleashed on a group of students and protesters who had decided to occupy Tiananmen Square in an attempt to force governmental reforms.
It was dubbed the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or in Mandarin, The June Fourth Incident (六四事件). On the anniversary of that day, we honor the uncounted souls who fought and died that night.
Zhang Jian was one of them. He was the former Commander in Chief of the Student Security Team, a leader amongst his peers. Jian was forced to live in exile in Paris after fleeing the country to avoid arrest. In the spring of 2005, a documentary titled The Tiananmen Mission was made to record an impromptu interview in which he described his experiences.
He was born and raised in the Tongzhou district of Beijing. While growing up, he developed a profound sense of patriotism. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of the communist role models Lei Fang, Wang Cheng, and Dong Cunrui. He joined the Red Scarves and spent his time trying to recruit his fellow classmates to the cause of reinforcing communist rule. To him, propaganda was a rich philosophy filled with ideals to strive towards.
Jian didn’t lose those beliefs when he began attending the Sport Junior College in Beijing. During that time, he was asked by his fellow students to join a picket team in the student protest movement. He thought they were holding a festival, but they told him his team was set up to safeguard protesters and help maintain order at Tiananmen Square.
Young people had been gathering there to mourn Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party. He had come to symbolize freedom and anti-corruption, and his death was felt across China. It was one of many factors that led to the uprising.
Crowds gathered by the thousands. In the documentary, we get a glimpse of this youth movement. They wore big 80s glasses, cut-off shirts, sweatpants, business-like button-ups, and slacks. Many had white headbands inscribed with slogans. They hoisted giant characters’ posters attached to bamboo poles while marching through the street. Some called for democracy, and others spoke of corruption, class struggle, and solidarity for the movement. In the square, the students built a giant statue of the Goddess of Democracy, an obvious nod to the Statue of Liberty and the French Revolution.
At the time, the Communist Party was completely crippled. Two factions had formed. Hardliners were led by Li Peng, the former Premier of the People’s Republic, who wanted the students gone. Others agreed with General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was intent on listening to the students and coming up with some form of compromise.
The general belief throughout China was that the government would eventually have to cave. Many were certain that it would fall. Protests broke out across the country, hoping to bolster the movement. People from all walks of life—soldiers, doctors, policemen, and even celebrities—came flocking to the scene, trying to find ways to show their solidarity, publicly or otherwise. A significant percentage of the population showed up in one way or another.
When Jian saw what was happening, he was reminded of his own class struggle. He had family members who had been oppressed during the Cultural Revolution, and he watched as they continued to struggle later in life, robbed of the promise of prosperity that had been the communist dream. Jian agreed wholeheartedly with what was happening, but he didn’t lose his love for the Communist Party or China’s system of government. He wanted change, not revolution.
When Jian joined the movement, the students were in the middle of a hunger strike, hoisting character signs that declared their refusal to eat in the name of change. This made waves in a country where hunger and famine had characterized life for thousands of years. The public saw what were essentially children falling over, ambulances rushing into the square, and carrying them out on stretchers. It was shocking and difficult to witness.
Jian would rush around, carrying out the basic tasks necessary to maintain an encampment. He would hand out water and do chores while those around him passed out, left, and were replaced by even more students.
The movement leaders dropped out one by one, unable to go on without food, allowing Jian to rise in the ranks until he was elected Commander in Chief of the Student Security Team. He had joined in on the hunger strike and was sent to the hospital several times. However, Jian was so dedicated that he kept returning, refusing to eat, and only drinking small sips of water.
The Communist Party was deadlocked at that point and struggling to find a solution to the problem. Finally, Li Peng persuaded them to declare martial law and send the People’s Liberation Army into the city—an unprecedented act. Jian gathered the students and mapped out all of the major entrances into Beijing and directed them to go there to stop their trucks.
The entire population of Beijing seemed to swarm the streets, summoning up an insurmountable sea of people. In truth, only an estimated 10% of the population—one in ten—left their homes to block the military’s advance. Old women and mothers would plead for the safety of their children and grandchildren in the square. Those oppressed due to wealth inequality and the regime’s cruelty begged the soldiers to understand. Parents brought their kids, who called the soldiers “uncle,” a term of endearment in Mandarin. They welcomed the soldiers into their homes, offered them food, and found them beds to sleep in, all so they could keep the army’s trucks from moving without forcing them to go without food, water, and shelter. The tactic worked beautifully.
Many of the soldiers showed solidarity with the movement. They joined in, took pictures with the students, and allowed themselves to be taken in by Beijing’s citizens. The story of Tiananmen is filled with shows of strength like this, proving the people’s ability to rise up and make themselves heard, even in the face of extreme oppression.
Party Leaders felt like they were being humiliated, and they were terrified that the edifice of communism was collapsing. They decided to bring in troops from all of the military districts in the country, swarming Beijing with hundreds of thousands of soldiers. At the same time, the students continued their hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.
Jian responded by visiting his mother. He told her that she would still have the rest of the family to lean on if he died. They argued, and when they were finished, he found a white outfit—the color of death—then returned to the encampment in the square.
Li Peng and the other party leaders who backed him had been adamant that the students were revolutionaries trying to violently overthrow the government. Members of the Communist Party would infiltrate the crowd, jump in front of cameras, and shout anti-party slogans. They wanted to justify the coming slaughter by proving that it was necessary to maintain stability in the nation. This is a tactic as old as time. Grassroots movements like this are often discredited, but in this case, it wasn’t meant to break them up. It was meant to rationalize the deaths of several thousand young people.
There were many Tank Men on the night of June 3 and the early morning of June 4. Just beneath the Muxidi apartments near the outskirts of Beijing, where many party members maintained their residences, protesters built barricades to keep the soldiers from advancing. They were ruthlessly slaughtered using ammunition designed to burst open when it entered the body, ensuring death. This is where the majority of the casualties happened that night. Had the party members looked outside their windows, they would’ve seen innocent people dying.
Back at the square, the protesters had managed to block a wave of soldiers, but more came. Jian was there when they arrived. He confronted them as best as he could. He used a bamboo pole to warn them off, and they moved around him. At one point, they formed a line and started shooting at the ground with their automatic weapons, ordering the students to move. When the students held their ground, the soldiers fired directly at them. One of Jian’s friends was hit, and he held him in his arms.
We get a glimpse into Jian’s mindset. Unlike his mother, who had lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, he did not believe that the army would fire on innocent protesters. The harsh truths—death and the fragility of human life—seemed to have been lost on a doe-eyed child, who became a man when he felt the life drain out of his friend.
When he realized what he was facing, he did not back down. A bus raced through the crowd and stopped in between the soldiers and the protesters in an attempt to save their lives. The soldiers shot through it, then rushed up to drag the bodies out. Jian saw another friend’s corpse manhandled like a dead dog and confronted the ranking Commander.
He was shot for doing so, but he knowingly confronted death and didn’t care. He would’ve stayed and fought had he not been dragged away and sent to the hospital.
After the slaughter, when the cold gray dawn rose above the city, hoards of people could be seen flocking to the square. They’ve been described as insane, and they were. It was the parents of the students who had died the night before. They screamed at the soldiers, admonishing them for taking their children’s lives, and the soldiers responded by mowing them down with rifle fire. More parents showed up, along with ambulances, and the soldiers shot them all down, killing countless poor and grieving souls.
The soldiers had orders to clear Tiananmen Square by 6 AM on June 4. By June 5, when the Tank Man made his final stand, the fighting had stopped, and things were under control.
In the months and years to come, the authorities waged a manhunt and purge, hoping to find anyone involved in the protests. Tens of thousands were arrested. Nobody knows how many were executed, but some lives were spared. Jian was forced to leave the country and travel to Paris, where he lives today.
He’s never given up on the fight, and he never will. In fact, he keeps one of the bullets the commander fired in his leg as a reminder of what happened at Tiananmen Square. When he describes the events, it’s like watching someone reminisce about the good old days, not a massacre or exile. It was the moment he stood up to a corrupt regime, and he was proud of himself. He just wished he could do more.
On April 23, 2019, Zhang Jian passed away on a flight en route to Paris. He had previously disappeared while in Thailand, and nobody was sure what had occurred. The autopsy showed that he had been poisoned, leading many to believe that this pivotal figure in the Tiananmen Square Massacre had been assassinated like many Chinese human rights activists. His story will live on in his Tiananmen Mission interview.
For the full four episodes of his interview, please visit this page: jointalents.com/tiananmen-mission