Tank Man (also known as the Unknown Protester or Unknown Rebel) is the nickname of an unidentified man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the People’s Liberation Army had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank’s attempted path around him. The incident was filmed and seen worldwide.
More than 25 years after the incident, there is no reliable information about the identity or fate of the man; the story of what happened to the tank crew is also unknown. There is at least one witness who has stated that ‘Tank Man’ was not the only person who had opposed the tanks during the protest. Shao Jiang was a student leader, and he said, “I witnessed a lot of the people standing up, blocking the tanks.” Tank Man is unique in that he is the only one who was photographed and videoed, with those images reaching the rest of the world.
Identity and Fate
Little is publicly known of the man’s identity or that of the commander of the lead tank. Shortly after the incident, the British tabloid the Sunday Express named him as Wang Weilin (王维林), a 19-year-old student who was later charged with “political hooliganism” and “attempting to subvert members of the People’s Liberation Army.” However, this claim has been rejected by internal Communist Party of China documents, which reported that they could not find the man, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights. One party member was quoted as saying, “We can’t find him. We got his name from journalists. We have checked through computers but can’t find him among the dead or among those in prison.” Numerous theories have sprung up as to the man’s identity and current whereabouts.
There are several conflicting stories about what happened to him after the demonstration. In a speech to the President’s Club in 1999, Bruce Herschensohn, former deputy special assistant to President Richard Nixon, reported that he was executed 14 days later; other sources say he was executed by firing squad a few months after the Tiananmen Square protests. In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that she believes from her interactions with the government press that they have “no idea who he was either” and that he’s still alive somewhere on the mainland.
The government of the People’s Republic of China has made few statements about the incident or the people involved. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, then-CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin was asked what became of the man. Jiang first stated (through an interpreter), “I can’t confirm whether this young man you mentioned was arrested or not,” and then replied in English, “I think never killed” [sic].The government also said the actions of the man not coming to harm showed the humility of the country’s military.
In a 2000 interview with Mike Wallace, Jiang Zemin said, “He was never arrested.” He then stated, “I don’t know where he is now.” He also emphasized that the tank stopped and did not run the young man down.
International Notability and Censorship
Internationally, the image of the lone man in front of the tank has come to symbolize the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and is widely considered one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
A PBS interview of six experts noted that the memory of the Tiananmen Square protests appears to have faded in China, especially among younger Chinese people, due to government censorship. Images of the protest on the Internet have been censored in China. When undergraduate students at Beijing University, which was at the center of the incident, were shown copies of the iconic photograph 16 years afterward, they “were genuinely mystified.” One of the students said that the image was “artwork.” It is noted in the documentary Frontline: The Tank Man that he whispered to the student next to him “89,” which led the interviewer to surmise that the student may have concealed his knowledge of the event.
It has been suggested that the “Unknown Rebel,” if still alive, never made himself known as he is unaware of his international recognition due to Chinese media suppression of events relating to government protest.
At and after the events in the square, the PSB treated members of the international press roughly, confiscating and destroying all the film they could find, and forced the signing of confessions to offenses such as photography during martial law, punishable by long imprisonment.