Tiananmen + 20: Tribute to Tank Man, or the Unknown Rebel

One man vs. the mighty Red Army
One man vs. the mighty Red Army - photo by Jeff Widener for Associated Press

This is of the most famous photos of modern times. The official caption, given by Associated Press, reads: “An anti-government protester stands in front of artillery tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, at the height of the pro-democracy protests.”

It’s a moment deeply etched in the consciousness of our media-saturated world. The solitary, unarmed man was standing up against not just a brute of a tank, but the might of the entire Chinese Red Army, which had just cracked down ruthlessly on pro-democracy student protests.

It was on the morning of June 5 that the Tank Man appeared from nowhere. A line of 18 tanks were pulling out of Tiananmen Square and driving east along the Avenue of Eternal Peace. The previous day, the square had been cleared of students and much blood had been spilled. The streets were now empty except for soldiers.

Suddenly a man in a white shirt and black trousers, with a shopping bag in each hand, steps out on to the road and stands waiting as the tanks approach. The lead vehicle halts, assessing its options.

It moves right to go around him. The man waves the shopping bag in his right hand then dances a few steps to the left to block the tank again. The tank swerves back left to avoid him. The man waves the bag again and stepps to the right. Then both stop. The tank even turned off its engine.

Then more things happened.
Watch a video montage of this breathtaking standoff, captured by western journalists filming from a safe distance:

Watch first few minutes of the 2006 PBS documentary on the Tank Man incident and aftermath:

Twenty years on, the identify of the Tank Man remains a mystery. There are conflicting reports on who he was, and what happened to him after that single, defining act of defiance. Practically all we know is that he wasn’t run down by the tanks, and was instead arrested a few minutes later by the Chinese authorities. Naturally, there are few official comments on the incident or the Tank Man.

But during those few minutes, when individual soldiers hesitated and refrained from running him over, the Unknown Rebel secured his worldwide fame. He probably wasn’t doing it for any notion of posterity – in all likelihood, he was horrified bystander who’d seen the carnage in the preceding days and felt, as we do from time to time, that enough was enough.

And unlike most of us, he decided to risk his life to register his protest. In April 1998, Time magazine included the “Unknown Rebel” in its feature entitled Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.

Charlie Cole, a Newsweek photographer who captured the moment, says: “Personally I think the government most likely executed him. It would have been in the government’s interest to produce him to silence the outcry from most of the world. But, they never could. People were executed at that time for far less than what he did.”

He adds: “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. He made the image, I just took the picture. I felt honoured to be there.” Read the full account by Charlie Cole

Read the recollections of the four photojournalists who captured this historic moment

A ground level view of Tank Man preparing for his showdown with tanks - photo by Terril Jones In early June 2009, a fifth photographer shared his own image of the incident – disclosing photos that had never before been circulated. Associated Press reporter Terril Jones revealed a photo he took showing the Tank Man from ground level, a different angle than all of the other known photos. (Tank Man is the second from left, in the background.) Jones initially didn’t realise what he had captured until a month later when printing his photos from that momentous week.

As we celebrate the memory of the Tank Man – and his defiance of brutal, oppressive use of state power to crush dissent – we must also salute the courage and resourcefulness of photojournalists and TV reporters who risked their own lives to capture this moment for posterity. Tank Man became iconic only because his act was frozen in time by those bearing witness. All too often, states – from Burma to Zimbabwe, and others in between – ensure that there is no one to bear such witness when they unleash the full force of police, armies and weapons on their own people.

There can be no doubt that Tank Man was not the first of his kind, nor would he be the last. Other ordinary men and women have found uncommon courage to stand up against injustice and state brutality wielded in the name of national security, law and order or anti-terrorist crackdown. But in the absence of witnesses – whether professional journalists or citizen journalists – the rest of the world will never know.