Tank man image looms large 25 years on

Jeff Widener's famous photo of a man confronting tanks near Tiananmen Square, June 1989.
04 June 2014
Jeff Widener's famous photo of a man confronting tanks near Tiananmen Square, June 1989.

A lone man confronting tanks that crushed a Chinese political movement has been redefined several times over since June 1989.

It was an image beamed around the world; an iconic picture that almost everyone has seen and which captured one of the most challenging moments of China’s modern history.

A lone man standing in front of advancing tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

He was part of student-led protests calling for political reforms and greater representation for the people.   

Twenty-five years later his whereabouts is unknown, as is his name. He disappeared into the crowd soon after. For millions, he symbolised hope and courage taking on state power.

The Chinese government has interpreted the famous scene differently, claiming it was evidence the military did not use its full force to end the protest.

“Anyone with common sense can see that if our tanks were determined to move on, this lone scoundrel could never have stopped them,” a voice over accompanying footage on China’s CCTV news said soon after the event.   

“This scene recorded on video flies in the face of Western propaganda.

“It proves that our soldiers exercised the highest degree of restraint.”

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary when Chinese troops, armed with assault rifles and tanks, entered Tiananmen Square, and opened firing on unarmed civilians.

Not everyone is commemorating the date.

Five years ago, efforts to stop news reports about the massacre on the 20th anniversary saw television screens periodically go black on the BBC and CNN networks in China; the plug was also pulled on Internet sites.

Similar efforts to forget are being made today.

Under President Xi Jingping’s leadership, such is the desire to censor any online reference to 4 June 1989, searches with numbers that could refer to the date, such as 6-4, 64 or 63+1, are routinely blocked.

That wasn’t the case on the 64th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in October 2013.

Countdown to confrontation
The events that led to the Beijing massacre of 3-4 June began with the death of former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, when mourners gathered in Tiananmen Square to express their grief, but also to vent dissatisfaction over political reform in China.

Over the next few days, they were joined by thousands of others, including students and workers calling for greater freedom and democracy.

On 22 April, the protesters sought a meeting with then premier Li Peng to deliver a petition of their demands, which was rejected.

Responding to the upheaval, a 26 April editorial in the state-run newspaper, The People’s Daily, accused the protesters of rejecting the Communist Party, further fuelling public anger.

In the lead-up to Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev arriving in China on 15 May for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years, hundreds of students pushed for a meeting with the government by staging a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.

Their continued presence forced the government to cancel plans to officially welcome the Soviet leader in the Square.

At the same time, foreign press covering Gorbechev’s visit walked into what looked like a clamorous, colourful and highly photogenic revolution.

The protesters were depicted in the international media as idealistic pro-Western students willing to die for democracy, pitted against aging Communist autocrats.

High ranking government official Zhao Ziyang, accompanied by Premier Li Peng, visited the square on 19 May, in an unsuccessful appeal for compromise.

That was followed by martial law being declared on 20 May. But people ignored the government’s orders. As troops moved towards the city centre, a huge number of civilians blocked their convoys, setting up barricades on streets.

Over the next week, the demonstrations continued, with protesters shouting for Premier Li to step down.

The movement was brought to a brutal end, when Communist Party elders approved a decision to use force on 2 June.

On the night of 3 June troops opened fire on the protesters, killing and injuring many unarmed citizens in the worst bloodshed ever seen in Beijing under Communist rule. 

The army declared complete control of Beijing on 4 June, but the next day came up against a lone protester who became known as the tank man.

The skinny, slope-shouldered individual with a white shirt and black pants defiantly stood in front of four tanks approaching Tiananmen Square, and even climbed on top of one so he could talk with the driver.

Chinese bloggers have since paid homage to the unknown protester with imitations of the stand-off.

A picture on the Chinese social media site Weibo depicts him in front of four giant yellow inflatable ducks.

Another positions him in front of four tanks made of Lego. Another portrays him as a harmless cow standing before four bull dozers.

A fictionalised version of his fate is told in Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 play, Chimerica.

Twenty-five years later the image is still as powerful as it was that fateful June day in 1989.

Belinda Cranston is reporter at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team