Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 6 June 2014
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesting students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
In our media saturated world, with hundreds of mainstream and citizen journalists bearing witness to key events, one image often stands out as symbolic. It’s that one which gets etched into our collective memory.
There was such an iconic image from Tiananmen Square. It shows a solitary, unarmed Chinese man standing up against a column of battle tanks rolling down a street.
Captured by several photographers snapping away from a nearby hotel balcony, it is one of the best known moments in 20th century photojournalism.
Perhaps the most widely seen photo was taken by Jeff Widener, an American photojournalist who was working for the news agency Associated Press (AP).
In fact, that image represented so much more than a news event, and has inspired art, graffiti and political activism. With that extraordinary act of defiance, the man in the picture caught the imagination of a whole generation.
A quarter century later, nobody knows who he was, or what happened to him afterwards. He has been dubbed ‘Tank Man’. In April 1998, TIME magazine included this “Unknown Rebel” in its list of 100 most important people of the last century.
The sequence of events has been well established by those who saw it happen. On the morning of 5 June 1989, a line of 18 tanks was pulling out of Tiananmen Square and driving east along Chang’an Avenue (literally, Avenue of Eternal Peace). It was just one minute’s walk away from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads into the Forbidden City.
The previous day, the square had been ‘cleared’ violently, and now the protesting students were being tracked down all over the city.
Suddenly a slim man, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers and carrying a shopping bag in each hand, steps out and stands directly on the path of advancing tanks. The leading tank stops, then moves to its right as if to go around him.
The man waves a shopping bag, and moves a few steps to his left to block the tank again. The tank swerves back to avoid him. The man waves the bag and gets in the way again. All the while, he is saying something – but video cameras are too far to catch it.
Then they both stop. The man climbs on to the tank, and is seen talking to the soldiers inside. He stays there for over a minute before stepping down. We can hear intermittent gunfire in the background.
Tanks resume their course, and the man tries once more to block them before being pulled back by some bystanders. The drama ends there – and that’s the last time the world sees the Tank Man.
From CNN: 1989 Raw Video: Man vs. Chinese tank Tiananmen square
There have been conflicting reports on who he was, and what happened to him. Some say he was arrested within minutes, while others contend that the authorities couldn’t nab him and he lives, to this day, unrecognized somewhere on the mainland. When American media asked party general secretary Jiang Zemin a year later about the man’s fate, he just said, “I think never killed.”
During those few minutes, however, as unknown soldiers hesitated to run him over, the Unknown Rebel unwittingly entered history. He probably wasn’t looking for any posterity – he was more likely a horrified citizen who’d seen the carnage and felt that ‘enough was enough’…
But how was that moment captured and shared around the world from a country that did not allow easy access to the global media? What made the live (or nearly live) coverage of Beijing events possible?
We need to remember that it was a very different world. The Cold War was still underway (albeit slowly thawing), the Berlin Wall was still standing, as was the Soviet Union (though not for much longer). The World Wide Web was not even fully invented, and first generation mobile phone networks were still being rolled out in the West and Japan.
The world witnessed Tiananmen Square events and the Tank Man incident thanks to a historic accident. Student demonstrations had been building up for weeks since mid April, but without much international attention. Then in mid May, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the Chinese capital for a Sino-Soviet summit, the first in over 30 years.
Gorbachev, who had already ushered in unprecedented reforms in his country, was a global media superstar. His China visit generated much media interest, and the world’s leading news organisations sent reporters and camera crews to Beijing. Keen to showcase the new era of relations between the world’s two largest communist nations, somewhat relaxed its usually strict controls on allowing global media.
But things didn’t go according to plan. When the leaders tried to clear the Tiananmen Square ahead of the summit, the students held their ground. At that time, moderates in the Community Party were still trying to negotiate with student leaders. But they were quickly sidelined after demonstrators blocked Gorbachev’s motorcade and the visiting leader had to be sneaked out through the back doors of the Forbidden City. The government felt deeply embarrassed.
Sensing the rising tension, some international reporters and photographers stayed on after Gorbachev left. On May 20, the government declared martial law and surrounded the capital with troops. After the siege dragged on for another two weeks, Deng Xiaoping decided to finally deal with protesting students by using full military force.
It has recently been disclosed that at least one of his top commanders refused – saying the protests were a political problem, and should be settled through negotiations, not force. He was soon arrested, and the others quickly fell in line.
The bloody events that followed have been documented and analysed by many. The People’s Liberation Army – the world’s largest military force – attacked their own unarmed countrymen, killing hundreds or more, and injuring thousands.
The official death toll has ranged between 200 and 300 (including soldiers). The actual number is believed to be much higher: there is no reliable figure, and the Chinese authorities will not permit independent historical research. China still refers to the events simply as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” that had to be contained.
Was the Tank Man among many killed that week or later?
Charlie Cole, a Newsweek photographer who bore witness (and won World Press Photo of the Year 1989 for his image), later said: “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 added: “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 Cole’s full account at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4313282.stm)
The unknown Tank Man was not the first of his kind, or the last. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and from Burma to Nepal, many other ordinary men and women have risked life and limb to take on state brutality wielded in the name of national security, law and order or anti-terrorism.
In an increasingly connected world, bearing witness to such acts has become easier – but no any less dangerous.
When the Burmese junta turned its guns on unarmed civilians in 2007, for example, it was mostly the anonymous citizen journalists who filmed that atrocity with hand-held digital cameras. Their footage, smuggled out, found its way to a global TV audience and also fed the 2008 Danish documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, directed by Anders Østergaard.
Every time a courageous civilian stands up for collective human rights despite overwhelming odds, and every time another committed individual bears witness to that act, the spirit of Tank Man lives on. We may never know his real identity, but his defiance resonates down the ages as an embarrassment for tyrants from Rangoon to Tehran.
As writer Pico Iyer once put it so well, “In a century in which so many tried to impress their monogram on history, often in blood red, the man with the tank…stands for the forces of the unnamed: the Unknown Soldier of a new Republic of the Image.”