This series has covered a variety of individuals who have meant something to the freedom movement. I have sought to bring back into the light people who time and the government want to forget. Tank man is another sort of freedom fighter. He was forgotten almost before he appeared. The fact is that, he may be more important than anyone I have covered yet.
April 15th 1989, an influential former Communist Party member named Hu Yaobang died. He was a voice for democratic reform within the party. Three days later, thousands of young Chinese students marched to Tiananmen Square, which is located in the center of the Chinese capital, Beijing. These students were mourning the passing of Hu, and calling for more reform in his honor.
More than a hundred students staged a hunger strike in the square on May 13th to further bring attention to the Chinese people’s want and need of a freer society. Within days, the number of people participating in the strike rose into the thousands. Revolution was brewing in the hearts of the Chinese youth. By the 19th, it is estimated that the demonstration drew 1.2 million people.
This activism wasn’t something that was just going to go away. The government was being directly challenged. Zhao Ziyang, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, was forced to appear at the protest and begged them to end the demonstrations and go home. The premier of China, Li Peng, imposed martial law as a result of these young people refusing to submit to the will of the government.
As might be expected, the western media covered the story as a turning point in Chinese history. This coverage was garnering support, globally, for the students and threatening the authoritarian government. Those in power feared that this uprising would spread. On June 1st, Chinese officials stopped all American coverage of the events taking place. Even photographs were prohibited. Beyond limiting the coverage of the protest, they also forbid the filming of Chinese troops.
The following day, a concert with over 100,000 people in attendance was held in support of the demonstrations by singer, Hou Dejian. The will of the people was clear. They wanted freedom and were not backing down.
On June 4th at 1am in the morning, the Chinese military entered Tiananmen Square. Chinese troops opened fire on their own people, who were mostly students. The Chinese government has never released the death toll. The estimates range from several hundred to thousands.
Under siege, the demonstrations came to an abrupt end. The might of the Chinese military had rolled over peaceful protesters, and killed children in the name of the state. It was apparent that the government was all powerful and in command… until the next day.
As the tanks continued to advance on the square, an unknown man, in a iconic feat of bravery, took a stand. A column of tanks pushed forward towards the former protest sight, yet, one man stood in their way. This one unidentified man bravely said, “No!” He, with shopping bags in hand, stepped in front of the first tank and dared it to continue. When the force of the Chinese army and it’s tyrannical government were pushing forward, all it took to halt them in their tracks was one man. The tank stopped. The man appeared to talk to the commander of the tank, then the man climbed up onto the tank and sat for a few moments. After he slid down to the side of the tank, the tank began to move again. The man again ran in front and stood. Several moments passed. A few people rushed in to push the man away. It remains uncertain exactly who they were.
No one really knows who the brave resistor actually was. Some people have identified him as a 19 year old student named Wang Weilin, based on his disappearance after the protests. Weilin’s friends feared that he had been put to death. General Secretary Jiang Zemin said that he did not know the mans name and was unaware of him being arrested.
There was another report that the man was an archaeologist who joined the demonstrations. The report goes on to say that he had escaped to Taiwan and worked for the National Palace Museum. Officials deny this report.
A special assistant to former President Nixon, Bruce Herschensohn, has reported that the man was executed 14 days after the event. Who knows where Herschensohn’s information came from. Perhaps, no one knows of “tank man's" identity or fate.
Who this man is does not matter. What does matter is what he proved. The estimates say that over 10,000 people were arrested, on top of the thousands killed, in Tiananmen Square. Dozens of people were executed because of their participation in the demonstrations. One man stopped all of that for a moment.
The meaning of Tiananmen is “gate to peace.” This is a perfect descriptor for who Tank Man is. He is the strength of one man to stand in the face of death and announce to the world that the destructive power of government will not be unopposed. All over the world, we saw as this one man stood down the Chinese oppression.
He also was not alone. Two people must be recognized as aiding Tank Man. The first is the driver of the tank. He did not just run him over. In choosing to respect Tank Man's life he acknowledged his rights over the government’s proclamations. The driver made that choice twice, faced again with choosing life or his orders. As we end the violence that is government, we will need soldiers to disobey their orders. It is important that those who are in our military choose life over the death they are ordered to inflict. We see this choice being reflected in the decline in re-enlistments. Americans are choosing not to fight in foreign lands for empire. Those who return are sharing their experiences and are becoming activists. People, like Adam Kokesh, are not only realizing the racket that is government and war, but they are spreading this truth to the world.
The second person who aided Tank Man is the photographer, who not only captured the film in defiance of the Chinese order to censor, but hid the film until he could retrieve it and released it to the world. We need him now, too! Our media is nothing more than a propaganda arm for our government. Brave men and women must defy their orders and tell the true stories.
Ultimately, Tank Man will never be forgotten. It is appropriate that we do not know his name. He is everyone. He is you and he is me. He is anyone who fights for what is right. Tank Man is the activist in the common man, just doing his shopping, seeing injustice, and taking action. We don't need more Tank Men, we already have them, they are us.
Written by @marcus.pulis (Press Secretary)
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