Standing Before Tanks

Twenty-five years ago today in a brutal crackdown by the Chinese government, an unknown number of protestors lost their lives in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre. The protesters, mostly students, had gathered in this massive outdoor place to air their grievances against government corruption of the party elite and to agitate for expanded freedoms (including freedom of the press, freedom of speech).tiananmen

The demonstrations lasted almost seven weeks before, in a bloody operation involving at least thirty divisions from the Chinese army, Chinese troops viciously swept the throngs away.

The next day (June 5), tanks entered the Square where the massacre occurred. An iconic photo (at left), secreted out of the country by a shrewd photographer shows the amazing resolve of a single Chinese man daring to stand against the advancing tanks.

Another photographer (with a video camera) captured footage of “Tank Man” moving right as the tank veered right, and moving left to block the tank’s leftward advance. Watch the entire amazing reportage as it unfolded (here on Frontline).

In light of this 2014 anniversary, it’s appropriate to wonder what the protests accomplished, besides some dead bodies and a slew of wounded individuals. The 1989 Tiananmen incident predated protests of recent years like the much-celebrated Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement. Only a few Western photographers captured the historic shots and a repressive Communist regime did everything it could to purge this sordid affair from the country’s collective consciousness.

Were a similar clash to happen today, multitudes of cellphone cameras would have the details plastered all through digital media within hours.

Print and photo journalists were the only ones delivering this story in 1989. When news coverage suggested the Chinese government had acted with restraint (permitting the protests to last nearly two months), many Western reporters expressed optimism, believing an upbeat future for Chinese citizens was on the horizon, a near future of increasing openness and greater personal freedom. It was inevitable, they thought.

But it didn’t happen. Throughout the country today, Chinese authorities actively monitor citizens. House arrests are common. Ahead of the 25th anniversary, security forces have questioned and detained individuals, sending a strong message of zero-tolerance for anyone inclined to publicly acknowledge this milestone day. In addition, home churches and Christian persons have come under intense scrutiny. As Christianity spreads, governmental paranoia has been magnified, leading to the demolition of church buildings across the country.

Let’s shift from the macro to the micro. Here’s Tank Man, one man standing by himself in a huge outdoor area that has been hastily abandoned by all his fellow citizens. He finds himself staring down the barrel of a cannon. This man, even after all these years, remains nameless. One photog (whose only picture shows Tank Man at a considerable distance from the tanks) reflects that Tank Man appeared to plan his encounter in the minutes leading up to the moment the advancing tanks were immediately in front of him.

When I look at this photo, I’m always in awe of Tank Man’s phenomenal courage. Surely, going through his mind was one nagging question:  Am I going to die today? But he doesn’t stop. He faces down this tank as if he’s sitting comfortably inside an air-conditioned two-ton Mack truck! Not only does he stand his ground, he eventually climbs onto the tank and begins talking to the soldiers inside!

I think about the self-surrender that allows an individual to be so bold and dauntless! In my view, he embodies the grit and fearlessness our Founding Fathers personified. Whatever blood and treasure Tank Man owned, he laid it all on the line that day.

And I’m actually glad his name remains a mystery to all. We can always hope he was given a chance to migrate to the States and that one day, as the tanks begin rolling into town, he’ll be there to stand up and show us what it means to fearlessly stand against the advance of tyranny.