Tank Man

Tank Man
"Tank Man" stops the advance of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, in Beijing. This photograph, taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, became one of the most famous images of the 20th century, and an international symbol at the end of the Cold War era.

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 on June 5, 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 (王維林), as dubbed by a Sunday Express article.


The incident

The incident took place near Tiananmen on Chang'an Avenue, which runs east-west along the south end of the Forbidden City in Beijing, on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese government's violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. The man placed himself alone in the middle of the street as the tanks approached, directly in the path of the armored vehicles (39°54′23.5″N 116°23′59.8″E / 39.906528°N 116.399944°E / 39.906528; 116.399944). He held two shopping bags, one in each hand.[1] 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.[2] 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.[2] Eyewitnesses disagree about the identity of the people who pulled him aside. Jan Wong is convinced the group were concerned citizens helping him away.[3] In April 1998, Time included the "Unknown Rebel" in a feature titled Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.

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[4] who was later charged with "political hooliganism" and "attempting to subvert members of the People's Liberation Army."[5] 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.[6] 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."[6] Numerous theories have sprung up as to the man's identity and current whereabouts.[7]

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.[2] In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that the man is still alive and is hiding in mainland China. Other commentary has also insisted that the men who pulled him out of the tanks' way were not the secret police, but rather concerned civilians.[citation needed]

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].[8] According to an unnamed professor from Hong Kong, reported by The Epoch Times, the tank man is still alive. He is said to have hidden in China for 3 years and 9 months after the incident, and eventually settled in Taiwan. The professor also stated that the tank man is a specialist in Chinese archeology.[9]

International notability and censorship

While the image of the lone man in front of the tank has come to symbolize the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 internationally,[6] it is virtually unknown within China itself, especially among younger Chinese people.[10] Images of the protest on the internet have been blocked by the "Great Firewall of China."[6] 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."[11] One of the students thought that the image was "artwork." However, it is also noted in the documentary Frontline: The Tank Man, that he whispered to the student next to him "89", and hence may have concealed his knowledge of the event.

One theory as to why the "Unknown Rebel" (if still alive) has never come forward, is that he himself is unaware of his international recognition.[6]

Photographic versions

Four photographers managed to capture the event on film and get their pictures published in its aftermath.[12] On June 4, 2009, another photographer released an image of the scene taken from ground level.[10]

The most used photograph of the event was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile (800 meters) away from the scene. Widener was injured and suffering from flu. The image was taken using a Nikon FE2 camera[13] through a Nikkor 400mm 5.6 ED IF lens and TC-301 teleconverter. Low on film, a friend hastily obtained a roll of Fuji 100 ASA color negative film, allowing him to make the shot.[14] Though he was concerned that his shots were not good, his image was syndicated to a large number of newspapers around the world,[12] and was said to have appeared on the front page of all European papers.[14]

Another version was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos from the fifth floor of the Beijing Hotel. His has a wider field of view than Widener's, showing more tanks further away. He was on the same balcony as Charlie Cole, and his roll of film was smuggled out of the country by a French student, concealed in a box of tea.[12]

Charlie Cole, working for Newsweek and on the same balcony as Stuart Franklin, hid his roll of film containing Tank Man in a Beijing Hotel toilet, sacrificing an unused roll of film and undeveloped images of wounded protesters after the PSB raided his room, destroyed the two rolls of film just mentioned and forced him to sign a confession. Cole was able to retrieve the roll and have it sent to Newsweek.[12] He won a World Press Award for a similar photo.[15] It was featured in Life's "100 Photographs That Changed the World" in 2003.

Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters took several shots, but the one shot of Tank Man climbing the tank was chosen from his batch of photos.[12]

On June 4, 2009, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the protests, 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 of the Tank Man. Jones has written that he was not aware of what he had captured until a month later when printing his photos.[16]

Variations of the scene were also recorded by BBC film crews and transmitted across the world. One witness recounts seeing Chinese tanks early on June 4 crushing vehicles and people, just one day before this man took his stand in front of this tank column.[17]

Willie Phua, a Singaporean cameraman for Australia's ABC, also captured footage of the moment from a hotel balcony.

See also


  1. ^ Langely, Andrew (2009). Tiananmen Square: Massacre Crushes China's Democracy Movement. Compass Point Books. pp. 45. ISBN 978-0756541019. 
  2. ^ a b c The Unknown Rebel Time profile. Last accessed January 10, 2006.
  3. ^ Picture Power:Tiananmen Standoff BBC News. Last updated 7 October 2005.
  4. ^ "Man who defied tanks may be dead", Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1990.
  5. ^ Munro, Robin; Spiegel, Mickey (1994). Detained in China and Tibet: a directory of political and religious prisoners. Asia Watch Committee. p. 194. ISBN 978-1564321053.
  6. ^ a b c d e Macartney, Jane (May 30, 2009). "Identity of Tank Man of Tiananmen Square remains a mystery". London: The Times. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6390782.ece. 
  7. ^ (Chinese) Wang Weilin by tank file, Apple Daily, June 2, 2006, p. A1.
  8. ^ "Frontline: The Tank Man transcript". Frontline. PBS. 2006-04-11. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/etc/transcript.html. Retrieved 2008-06-30. 
  9. ^ Epoch Times http://www.epochtimes.com/gb/6/6/1/n1336133.htm (Simplified Chinese)
  10. ^ a b Witty, Patrick (June 4, 2009). Behind the Scenes: A New Angle on History The New York Times.
  11. ^ ""The Tank Man: Interview: Jan Wong"". Frontline. PBS. 2006-04-11. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/interviews/wong.html. Retrieved 2010-08-12. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Witty, Patrick (June 3, 2009). Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen, New York Times
  13. ^ Alfano, Sean (June 4, 2009). ""Tank Man": The Picture That Almost Wasn't". CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/06/02/world/main5057008.shtml. 
  14. ^ a b Patrick Witty (June 3, 2009). "Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 12, 2010. http://www.webcitation.org/5shP0U7jv. Retrieved September 12, 2010. 
  15. ^ 1989 - World Press Photo World Press Photo. Last updated January 17, 2009.
  16. ^ Jones, Terril (2009). "Tank Man". Pomona College Magazine 41 (1). http://pomona.edu/Magazine/PCMFL09/FStankman.shtml. 
  17. ^ Picture Power: Tiananmen Standoff. BBC News. October 7, 2005.


  • June Fourth: The True Story, Tian'anmen Papers/Zhongguo Liusi Zhenxiang Volumes 1–2 (Chinese edition), Zhang Liang, ISBN 962-8744-36-4.
  • Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong, Doubleday, 1997, trade paperback, 416 pages, ISBN 0-385-48232-9 (Contains, besides extensive autobiographical material, an eyewitness account of the Tiananmen crackdown and the basis for an estimate of the number of casualties.)
  • The Tiananmen Papers, The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against their Own People—In their Own Words, Compiled by Zhang Liang, Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, with an afterword by Orville Schell, PublicAffairs, New York, 2001, hardback, 514 pages, ISBN 1-58648-012-X An extensive review and synopsis of The Tiananmen papers in the journal Foreign Affairs may be found at Review and synopsis in the journal Foreign Affairs.

External links

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