Tank Man

unknown rebel by Matt Needham

Tank Man, or the Unknown Rebel, is the nickname of an anonymous man who stood in front of a column of Chinese Type 59 tanks the morning after the Chinese military forcibly removed protestors from in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. The man achieved widespread international recognition due to the videotape and photographs taken of the incident. Despite his anonymity, he is commonly (though not necessarily correctly) referred to in Chinese as Wang Weilin.

The man placed himself alone in the middle of the street as the tanks approached, directly in the path of the armored vehicles. He held two shopping bags, one in each hand. As the tanks came to a stop, the man gestured towards the tanks with his bags. In response, the lead tank attempted to drive around the man, but the man repeatedly stepped into the path of the tank in a show of nonviolent action. After repeatedly attempting to go around rather than crush the man, the lead tank stopped its engines, and the armored vehicles behind it seemed to follow suit. There was a short pause with the man and the tanks having reached a quiet, still impasse.

Having successfully brought the column to a halt, the man climbed onto the hull of the buttoned-up lead tank and, after briefly stopping at the driver’s hatch, appeared in video footage of the incident to call into various ports in the tank’s turret. He then climbed atop the turret and seemed to have a short conversation with a crew member at the gunner’s hatch. After ending the conversation, the man alighted from the tank. The tank commander briefly emerged from his hatch, and the tanks restarted their engines, ready to continue on. At that point, the man, who was still standing within a meter or two from the side of the lead tank, leapt in front of the vehicle once again and quickly reestablished the man–tank standoff.

Video footage shows that two figures in blue attire then pulled the man away and disappeared with him into a nearby crowd; the tanks continued on their way. Eyewitnesses disagree about the identity of the people who pulled him aside. Canadian journalist Jan Wong is convinced the group were concerned citizens helping him away.

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, 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.

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. Jan Wong writes that the man is still alive and is hiding in mainland China.

Internationally, the image of the lone man in front of the tank has come to symbolize the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. However, a PBS interview of six experts noted that the memory of event have appeared to have faded within China itself, especially among younger Chinese people, due to lack of public discussion. 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 some years afterwards, they ‘were genuinely mystified.’ One of the students thought that the image was ‘artwork.’ However, it is also noted 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.

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2 Comments to “Tank Man”

  1. Such an incredible moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership and heroism this morning and this image really sums up a lot. Even though he didn’t lead per se, this kind of conspicuous action does break new ground much like the story of Rosa Parks. Thanks for sharing this and for your excellent commentary.

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