June 4 marks the 34th anniversary of what has come to be known as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.” On this day, Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed civilians, mostly students, bringing a sudden and bloody halt to the protest movement demanding reforms and liberalization. No one knows how many died but it is widely believed that hundreds, if not thousands, were slaughtered as soldiers moved to crush the seven-week movement for democracy.
On June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military violently suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests, the picture of the “Tank Man” sent shockwaves throughout the entire world. Many have recognized its symbolic parallels to the story of the boy David against the giant Goliath. 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, 34 years later, we still do not know who that man was or what happened to him because the Chinese government has censored much of the data. But the Tank Man remains immortal with an iconic status in the pages of world history.
Since the entire event is censored in China, only people who were there at the event or lost someone dear live with painful memories. The present generation can only learn about the event through the stories shared by their parents and relatives.
The Chinese government has never acknowledged the true events surrounding the Tiananmen Massacre. It remains a taboo topic in China; authorities have banned all mention of the protest even today. Attempts to discuss, commemorate, and demand justice for what happened have been forcefully curbed. Since 1989, many people have been imprisoned for commemorating events or questioning the official line.
Where is the iconic protestor of the 20th century?
Despite the censorship, one thing that has endured is the image of the “Tank Man,” which is still seared in the public memory. He is the brave face of defiance against an oppressive regime. Thirty-four 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 a white shirt, carrying shopping bags in each hand, demonstrated the most awe-inspiring fortitude by trying 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 could not confirm whether the man was arrested or not. Throughout most of the interview he used an interpreter, but at this point, he responded to Walters in English saying, “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 put to death by a firing squad a few months after the protests. Many, however, remain hopeful Tank Man is still alive; he 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. The photograph is still considered credible because Photoshop did not exist at that time. 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 people’s 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 naysayers, conspiracy theorists, and Chinese officials who deny the Tiananmen Square Massacre and blame the US for fomenting the Tiananmen Square protests.
There is still much speculation about the Tank Man’s disappearance. Some say he quietly slipped back into a life of anonymity or migrated to Taiwan, whereas others, as mentioned previously, 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”
When the Tiananmen Square Massacre comes to mind, many people think of the “Tank Man,” and his heroism, but for Fang Zheng, this iconic figure only represents one part of the story. The reality was that most tanks did not stop.
On June 4, 1989, at around 6 a.m., Fang Zheng a student at Beijing Sport University, along 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 at them 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, intending 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 and others injured like he was. “The first thing the Party wanted was for us to shut up. They didn’t want us to tell other people,” he said. But he knew he could not remain silent about 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 his freedom was restricted.
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 did not introduce the journalist to other victims of the Massacre, they would issue him a passport.
Zheng complied and was finally offered a passport on August 28, 2008. With help from the US government, he and his family immigrated to the United States.
I would recommend watching these 4 rare videos on Zhang Jian’s personal account about Tiananmen Square Massacre: