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Human Rights Violations in China Political Repression in China

In Search of Tank Man

I graduated from Peking University in 1989. Just a few years ago, when I arrived in the U.S., a friend of mine asked me about Tank Man. “Tank Man?” – I shook my head; he could have as well be talking about E.T. “Tank who? What are you talking about?” I asked with a perplexed look in my face. He glanced at me in an amusing way, and half jokingly told me: “You say you are from Beijing and were at Tiananmen Square that day?” I nodded. “But you don’t know Tank Man!” he seemed to suspect that I might have been embellishing my story.

“Who is Tank Man?” I asked, puzzled, since I had no clue who this Tank Man was. Without saying anything further, my friend googled Tank Man in his smart phone and showed me: There, for the first time, I saw the picture of that young man, who looked very much like one of the students from my university, bravely standing in front of a column of massive tanks, waving his arms and briskly moving his body to block the steel mammoth every time it tried to go past him. I remained there, transfixed, learning, for the first time, of an event that shook the world and had happened just a few blocks from where I was; yet, for almost 25 years, I had not known anything about it. I can see why my friend had trouble grappling with the thought that I had no idea who Tank Man was.

The Night of June 3, 1989

My last semester at Peking University was very dramatic. After only one month into the semester, Hu Yaobang, the former Secretary General of the Communist Party, died.

“Comrade” Hu had endeared himself to the students for his unwavering support of the young people’s progressive movement in favor of political reform and democracy. In March, the student union began organizing a series of activities to highlight Hu’s achievements. The day before Hu’s funeral, more than 100,000 students marched on Tiananmen Square in what eventually became the 1989 pro-democracy, anti-corruption demonstrations.

From March to May 1989, I witnessed blossoms wither, leafless trees spring to luscious green, and the otherwise empty nights of Tiananmen Square fill with tens of thousands of people gathered there day and night. We stopped going to school; instead, we set permanent tents on the Square.

On June 3, I was at our department’s tent, talking with my classmates about the events of the night before, when the Party leaders came to Tiananmen Square to talk to us and try to persuade us to go back to campus and into the classrooms. We also heard rumors about some students who had begun a hunger strike in protest against the government. As night began to descend on the Square, I went back to my parent’s house with two of my classmates for dinner. My parents lived just a few blocks from Tiananmen. After dinner, we decided to ride our bicycles back to our campus dormitory to get some rest, and planned to return to Tiananmen in the morning.

On our way back to campus, we saw Muxidi Bridge blocked by thousands of people. The bridge was about 8 kilometers west of Tiananmen Square, on the road that leads to Tiananmen. A man who looked out of breath and about to faint told us he had run from Gongzhufen, a key entrance to Tiananmen. He was almost in tears as he recounted that he had seen troops and tanks closing in on the Square and soldiers shooting at the crowds. “The man in front of me was shot and fell to the ground,” another man shouted from the dark. Immediately, we heard several voices saying “The soldiers are using rubber bullets and no one will be hurt”. My classmates and I really believed that the soldiers were just using rubber bullets to frighten the demonstrators; like my parents often said: “The People’s army never kills people”. With this naïve idea in mind, we decided to ride back to Tiananmen to sneak a peek at what was going on, but by now the crowd that had formed around us was so huge and compact that we had no choice but to take a side road back to campus.

At 4:00 a.m., I woke up, startled by loud knocks on my door. The security guard of the dorm building, a lady in her fifties, said gruffly “Your father is downstairs waiting for you”. My heart was pounding. “Why did my father come at this ungodly hour?” I mumbled. I followed the lady downstairs and saw my father standing in the dark. The minute he saw me, he held me tight and almost burst into tears; he was shaking uncontrollably. “Thank God, you are alive. Come home with me!”

My father rode his bicycle from home to my university, about 14 kilometers, just to make sure I was alive. He told me that since midnight they had been hearing gunshots everywhere and saw people hurriedly carrying the wounded to the hospital. He had been afraid for my safety because he knew the streets we took to ride back to school could lead us to the troops and tanks.

The morning of June 4, I was awakened by the ominous noise and rumbling of tanks moving up and down Changanjie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, and even then the irony could no escape us. Up in the still dark sky, armed helicopters were hovering like ravenous birds of prey ready to dive and rip the flesh off their hapless victims.

One of my brother’s friends, a mischievous, fearless boy, went out secretly and sneaked into a nearby hospital. He later told us he saw bodies piled up in one room. All the while, the government-controlled radio and TV kept telling us that no one had been killed, even as thousands of armed troops, carrying automatic weapons in a long convoy of trucks, moved in to clear the square and surrounding streets of demonstrators in what soon turned into a bloody crackdown.

After three or four days, we were allowed back on the streets. A charred body, impossible to recognize, was exposed one block from Tiananmen Square on the Avenue of Eternal Peace. A temporary sign beside the body said he was a soldier killed by vicious mobs.

Early in July, the president of Peking University, a math professor, was replaced by a Party secretary from another university in northeast China. We were summoned back to campus and our graduation was postponed for one month. The branch Party secretary of each department required that every graduate attend brain-washing meetings every day for at least one month. We sat, grudgingly, in the muggy classrooms, without air conditioning, barely enduring the sweltering July heat, listening to the radio or watching TV broadcasts about the “truth” of the events according to the government. From that summer on, all college students were required to participate in mandatory military training from one month to a year. Students were also required to receive instruction on “patriotism, collectivism and revolutionary heroism.” According to the government, today’s young elites in China should also “have a better understanding of national defense and security.”

In search of Tank Man

Thirty-one years after the bloody events of Tiananmen Square, few people in China have ever heard of the Tank Man; many still doubt the story was true and rather believe it was concocted by the Western media to undermine the Chinese government. Among those who believe the story is true, many assume he was arrested or even killed. I conducted an informal survey among people I know in China – my parents, my brother, some relatives and friends. Their reaction was that I was either crazy or influenced by Western propaganda. That solitary, unarmed protester standing his ground before a menacing column of tanks advancing down the Avenue of Eternal Peace has never existed in our life in China.

Deeply ingrained in our traditions and idiosyncrasy, we Chinese fear authorities, from emperors to the Communist government, therefore, out of self preservation, the majority of Chinese have developed a habit of refusing to believe foreign media reports, most of all if they deal with events inside China. When only one voice can be heard, in our case that of the Communist regime, people lose their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. For the rest of the world, while partially forgotten, the Tank Man remains the one hero who embodied the fight for freedom of Chinese students and the tragic events of Tiananmen Square. In China, sadly, he remains either unknown to the vast majority, or a figment of Western, anti China propaganda.

I began to search for the Tank Man on the Internet, investigating the mystery surrounding him – his identity, his fate, and his significance in modern Chinese history. Most sources said his name has never been confirmed and little is known about him or his fate after his daring confrontation with the tanks that day.

Despite having reached iconic status in Western countries, most Chinese even refuse to talk about him. A number of blogs assumed he was still alive and lived in China quietly, based on the hypothesis that if he were out of China, we would have heard him talk about that day. In 1990, when Barbara Walters interviewed then Communist Party Secretary General Jiang Zemin and asked him about the fate of the Tank Man, Jiang first stated through an interpreter that he could not confirm whether the young man was arrested or not, then replied in broken English, “I think … never killed”.

My most recent search about Tank Man led me to a CNN report dated August 15, 2013, according to which “Cirque du Soleil shocks Beijing audience with Tiananmen ‘Tank Man’ image. The banned picture was displayed for about four seconds on giant screens in front of 15,000 spectators in Beijing during a performance of Michael Jackson’s “They don’t care about us”. According to the account, the audience let out a collective gasp and the image was immediately removed and no longer allowed to appear in the show. The article also indicated that the Beijing authorities questioned how the Tank Man passed the government censors and made it into the show.

Tank Man and online dictatorship

The Chinese Communist regime is notorious for controlling the media. I came across a PBS teaching plan for a documentary the broadcasting institution produced on the Tank Man. One teaching objective is to let American students become familiar with the Google search engine in and outside of China. The teaching plan provides two links – Google.com and Google.cn. I clicked on both: Google.com led me to the English page of Tiananmen Square and many images, articles and videos of Tank Man; Google.cn navigated to an icon in Chinese instructing to click on Google.com.hk, but here, too, after clicking, no image of Tank Man can be found. That sums up and illustrates China’s policy of strict censorship.

The Chinese government uses the strongest filtering software to block any facts about the 1989 Tiananmen Square events and bloody crackdown, and even today, people in China still cannot see pictures or videos about the Tank Man. The worst, however, is that after twenty plus years of brainwashing, most Chinese not only refuse to talk about the event, but block it completely from their minds. The younger generation born after 1990 does not even know what the protest of Tiananmen Square was.

A quarter of century later, why should I retell the story of Tank Man and the brave Chinese demonstration for democracy? Although most Americans know about Tank Man, I believe there are millions of Americans who, like my friend, fail to understand how many Chinese from Beijing who experienced and even witnessed this massacre in 1989 have never heard of Tank Man or seen his image. In searching for and talking about Tank Man, I want to remind people who take the right to free speech and other freedoms for granted, that the Communist regime, in spite of making undeniable progress in economic development, will never change its totalitarian nature – dictating and controlling how people think..

Not knowing about the Tank Man is not only the tragedy of the Chinese people, but also the world’s. When tyranny fools people by manipulating and concealing the truth, those who know the truth should stand, hold it high and let it shine. How is it possible that a quarter of the world’s population is still forbidden to watch the image of Tank Man, to learn his brief yet amazing story and to review the Tiananmen Square movement calling for democracy and respect for human rights?

Today, the world witnessed how Chinese authorities jailed human rights activists, put millions of Uighur people into concentration camps, and banned Hong Kong people from holding a mass vigil commemorating the Tiananmen square massacre. Now more than ever do we, Chinese, need to keep the story of Tank Man alive and inherit the spirit of those young people who died in 1989.

One of the most beautiful monuments on the Mall in Washington, D.C. is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, my most revered Founding Father. Etched around its cupola there is an inscription with one of his most profound quotes: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal enmity against any form of tyranny over the human mind.” That is my creed.

For the past six years, I have written blogs to honor the young Chinese who sacrificed their lives to bring democracy to China. But the sad reality is that after 31 years, the Chines people don’t know the truth about the events on Tienanmen Square, and the Communist repression is increasing.  ​​

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