Photo of the Day

Images of the protest on the Internet have been censored in China. A wider shot by Stuart Franklin showing column of tanks approaching Tank Man, who is shown near the lower-left corner. A column of T59 People’s Liberation Army tanks makes its way from Tiananmen Square over Chang’an Avenue, Beijing. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Magnum

Tank Man

The Unknown Rebel

Twenty-eight years ago today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) violently cleared Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen means “gate of heavenly peace”) of protesters, ending a six-week demonstration that had called for democracy and widespread political reform. The protests began in April of 1989, gaining support as initial government reactions included concessions. Martial law was declared on May 20, troops were mobilised, and from the night of June 3 through the early morning of June 4, the PLA pushed into Tiananmen Square, crushing some protesters and firing on many others. The exact number killed may never be known.

A day after Chinese military killed at least hundreds, if not thousands of demonstrators, a wiry man in a white shirt stepped in front of a line of moving tanks near Tiananmen Square and become one of the most famous protesters of the 20th century. The man blocked the path of the tanks, even as they gunned their engines. He climbed onto the first tank, pounded on the hatchet, and appeared to speak to the soldiers inside. When he stepped back down in front of the tank, two men ran into the street and pulled him away. The confrontation became one of the most enduring images of the pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests that swept China that spring and summer.

All these years later, his identity is still a mystery. He is called simply Tank Man.

A citizen stands passively in front of Chinese tanks in this June 5, 1989, photo taken during the crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising. Reuters/Arthur Tsang

Images of the protest on the Internet have been censored in China. A Demonstrator confronts a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks on Chang’an Avenue, Beijing, during demonstrations for democratic reform on Tiananmen Square. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Magnum

The Tiananmen Square Protests for freedoms in China is a truly depressing story. With a single act of defiance, a lone Chinese hero revived the world’s image of courage. One evaluation said that his actions reshaped the symbol of courage in the world.

For 28 years, foreign reporters have sought to identify the brave, solitary figure in the most memorable photo to emerge from China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. And still, the mystery endures.

Shortly after noon on June 5, 1989, the day after troops stormed through Beijing and into the square to crush the student-led political uprising that had paralysed and electrified the capital for weeks, a lone man with shopping bags in both hands briefly stopped a column of oncoming tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace.

The lead vehicle halted. It moved right and left to avoid the defenceless man. Each time, he adjusted his position to remain in the tank’s path. Finally, he shifted the bags to one hand, jumped onto the tank and appeared to talk to its driver.

The standoff, just east of the square, was captured by newspaper photographers and TV news crews. The standoff lasted but a few minutes but was so tense with drama that witnesses recall it feeling like an eternity.

Photographer Jeff Widener, whose photo of the incident is the best known was working then for the Associated Press. He told McClatchy News Service that he has “always felt ‘Tank Man’ was like the unknown soldier. He will always symbolise freedom and democracy.”

Almost nobody knew his name. Nobody outside his immediate neighbourhood had read his words or heard him speak. Nobody knows what happened to him even one hour after his moment in the world’s living rooms. But the man who stood before a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square may have impressed his image on the global memory more vividly, more intimately than even Sun Yat-sen did.

A demonstrator confronts a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks on Chang’an Avenue, Beijing, during demonstrations for democratic reform on Tiananmen Square. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Magnum

The meaning of his moment–it was no more than that–was instantly decipherable in any tongue, to any age: even the billions who cannot read and those who have never heard of Mao Zedong could follow what the “tank man” did. A small, unexceptional figure in slacks and white shirt, carrying what looks to be his shopping, posts himself before an approaching tank, with a line of 17 more tanks behind it. The tank swerves right; he, to block it, moves left. The tank swerves left; he moves right. Then this anonymous bystander clambers up onto the vehicle of war and says something to its driver, which comes down to us as: “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.” One lone Everyman standing up to machinery, to force, to all the massed weight of the People’s Republic–the largest nation in the world, comprising more than 1 billion people–while its all-powerful leaders remain, as ever, in hiding somewhere within the bowels of the Great Hall of the People.

A demonstrator climbs on top of the first tank in a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks on Chang’an Avenue, Beijing, during demonstrations for democratic reform on Tiananmen Square. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Magnum

The man who defied the tank was standing, as it happens, on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, just a minute away from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads into the Forbidden City. Nearby Tiananmen Square–the very heart of the Middle Kingdom, where students had demonstrated in 1919; where Mao had proclaimed a “People’s Republic” in 1949 on behalf of the Chinese people who had “stood up”; and where leaders customarily inspect their People’s Liberation Army troops–is a virtual monument to People Power in the abstract. Its western edge is taken up by the Great Hall of the People. Its eastern side is dominated by the Museum of Chinese Revolution. The Mao Zedong mausoleum swallows up its southern face.

The demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which at one point had reportedly ballooned to a million people, were not the only pro-democracy protests in the country at the time. Demonstrations had spread to hundreds of cities, including Shanghai, China’s largest, and in the days after the military mobilised in Beijing, protesters were putting up blockades in Shanghai.

And to be sure, it wasn’t the first time protesters had filled the Square in Beijing, a space for public protest. More than a decade earlier, in what became known as the Tiananmen Incident, a similar if smaller-scale crackdown on protesters spawned outrage and led to a reshuffling of the nation’s top leadership.

For seven weeks, though, in the late spring of 1989–the modern year of revolutions–the Chinese people took back the square, first a few workers and students and teachers and soldiers, then more and more, until more than 1 million had assembled there. They set up, in the heart of the ancient nation, their own world within the world, complete with a daily newspaper, a broadcasting tent, even a 30-ft. plaster-covered statue they called the “Goddess of Democracy.” Their “conference hall” was a Kentucky Fried Chicken parlour on the south-west corner of the square, and their spokesmen were 3,000 hunger strikers who spilled all over the central Monument to the People’s Heroes. The unofficials even took over, and reversed, the formal symbolism of the government’s ritual pageantry: when Mikhail Gorbachev came to the Great Hall of the People for a grand state banquet during the demonstrations–the first visit by a Soviet leader in 30 years–he had to steal in by the back door.

A demonstrator confronts a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks on Chang’an Avenue, Beijing, during protests for democratic reform on Tiananmen Square. Photo: Charlie Cole

Demonstrations for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square, Bejing, China. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Magnum

Tiananmen Square is in the heart of Beijing. It’s right where the Imperial Palace is located, and it’s the biggest square in the world. It takes quite a long time to walk from one side to the other. It’s not human scale at all. If you can imagine a place that can hold a million people standing in one spot, that’s how big Tiananmen Square is. Someone said it could host the entire Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics at the same time, that’s how big it is.

It’s not a welcoming place. It’s not like Central Park, where you’d want to gather because there is not a tree there; there’s no shade. There are just big, tall lampposts with cameras on the top that swivel around, and if they see anything interesting, they’re going to follow you. There are big loudspeakers so they can blast music or orders; very often they’ll tell you what to do. There’s not one single bench in the entire square. If you want to sit, you have to sit on the stones. And it’s crawling with plainclothes policemen. … If anybody ever tries to unfurl a banner, in less than a minute you’ll be jumped. That’s how many plainclothes police are there watching.

Three unidentified men flee as a Chinese man, background left, stands alone to block a line of approaching tanks, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, on June 5, 1989. The man in the background stood his ground and blocked the column of tanks when they came closer, an image captured on film by numerous other photographers and one that ultimately became a widely reproduced symbol of events there. AP Photo/Terril Jones

Bodies of dead civilians lie among crushed bicycles near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989. AP Photo

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been (and still is) ruled by the Chinese Communist Party since the revolution of 1949. But by the 1980’s a new generation was born of the men and women of the revolution, these youth “Born Under the Red Flag” lived in the aftermath of the plights brought on by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. They saw the communist countries of, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc, crumble and become bastions of freedom. This generation was also the first to absorb Western culture thanks to economic reforms brought about by Chairman Deng Xiaoping.

The major protests began with student-led hunger strikes in Beijing’s city centre, Tiananmen Square, demanding freedoms from the government. The hunger protests ushered more Chinese to the student’s cause, as they began to see cracks within their government for the first time.

The solidarity protests began around March 17, and they brought tonnes of Chinese citizens to Tienanmen Square, and almost overnight it had been transformed into a rolling sea of people. Protesters came from everywhere, and were representative of everyone, from doctors to factory workers, to teachers, to journalists that were formally loyal to the Communist Party (namely those of the Peoples Daily). Even members of the old revolution that had once similarly participated in the Communist Revolution having been promised democracy and freedom during the rule of the Kuomintang in the 40’s, joined their sons and grandsons in protest of the government they had believed in all those years ago.

As time went on the protests grew from just a citizens freedom protest, to include a workers union movement as well. While this was happening, the Communist Party was stricken with fear; they were dealing with the humiliation of the scale of the protests, and with in-fighting as to how the protests should be dealt with. That is to say, whether it should be dealt with violence as the hardliner communists wanted, or consolidation as their reformer colleagues wanted. This quarrel went on for many days until the hardliners came out on top, and on May 20th martial law was declared and the Peoples Liberation Army was sent in. Where they were met by torrents of protesters flooding the streets and denying them passage for 2 whole weeks.

Civilians hold rocks as they stand on a government armoured vehicle near Chang’an Boulevard in Beijing, early on June 4, 1989. Violence escalated between pro-democracy protesters and Chinese troops, leaving hundreds dead overnight. AP Photo/Jeff Widener

A captured tank driver is helped to safety by students as the crowd beats him, on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square. Reuters

Disaster struck on the 3rd of June, orders were given to soldiers of the PLA straight from the Standing Committee of the Politburo (China’s “legislative” body of sorts). The details of the order were precise, and chillingly so.

-The troops were to begin their pacification of the protests at 9:00
-Troops must enter Tiananmen Square by 1:00 am of Jun 4th and clear the square by 6:00 the same day.
-No delays would be tolerated.
-No person may impede the advance of the troops enforcing martial law. The troops may act in self-defense and use any means to clear impediments.
-State media will broadcast warnings to citizens.

The troops began firing on the citizens at 10:00 pm on June 3rd and driving in tanks through the crowds to disperse them. Appalled, some citizens retaliated, bus and taxi drivers formed roadblocks to keep the tanks from entering the square. News spread and the West captured the story 30 minutes after the gunfire began (reporters were staying in hotels within the square). By 12:00 am, the square was a sprawling mess of flaming vehicles and frantic protesters illuminated in an orange haze from the street lights. During this hellish scene, the armoured personnel carriers (APCs) arrived, ploughing through the barricades and rolling over the protesters camp in the centre of the square. The protesters light one of them on fire and this is when the protesters began to retaliate with violence.

An armoured personnel carrier, in flames after students set it on fire near Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989. Tommy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers leap over a barrier on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, during heavy clashes with people and dissident students. The PLA was reportedly under orders to clear the square by 6:00 am, with no exceptions. Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images

In the dark early hours of June 4, the government struck back, sending tanks from all directions toward Tiananmen Square and killing hundreds of workers and students and doctors and children, many later found shot in the back. In the unnatural quiet after the massacre, with the six-lane streets eerily empty and a burned-out bus along the road, it fell to the tank man to serve as the last great defender of the peace, an Unknown Soldier in the struggle for human rights.

As soon as the man had descended from the tank, anxious onlookers pulled him to safety, and the waters of anonymity closed around him once more. Some people said he was called Wang Weilin, was 19 years old and a student; others said not even that much could be confirmed. Some said he was a factory worker’s son, others that he looked like a provincial just arrived in the capital by train. When American newsmen asked Chinese leader Jiang Zemin a year later what had happened to the symbol of Chinese freedom–caught by foreign cameramen and broadcast around the world–he replied, not very ringingly, “I think never killed.”

The battle was one-sided, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) having the advantage the whole time, the violence continued for another day, and by the next morning, the protests were over.

Exhausted, humiliated soldiers are hustled away by protesters in central Beijing, on June 3, 1989. Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images

A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers, who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on June 3, 1989. AP Photo/Jeff Widener

On the morning of June 5th, after Tiananmen Square had been cleared, Chinese vehicles were parading the square. A column of three tanks were driving along the silent streets when suddenly a man bursts out of the sidewalk with grocery bags in his hands and he just stands in front of the tanks. The tanks try to drive around him, but the man just moves to meet them, tanks that had just the day before ran down dozens of people, couldn’t bring themselves to run this lone man down. Eventually, the tanks just turn off their engines, and the man approaches the lead tank and climbs it. He opens the hatch and screams into it, and then he climbs off and is ushered away by men.

Throughout the weeks of the protest, the students rallied around the music of Chinese rock star and pioneer of Chinese rock and roll, Cui Jian, and his song “Nothing to My Name” which would become the song the song that would define the protests. Jian would often perform in Tienanmen with the students but after the army crackdown, he was forced to flee for quite some time. Cui Jian’s music is a mix of old Chinese cultural music, that was still played frequently before the Cultural Revolution, and western music.

Beijing police parade through Tiananmen Square carrying banners in support of striking University students, on May 19, 1989. The students were in the sixth day of their hunger strike for political reform. AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami

APRIL 22 1989: Several hundred of the 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters sit face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People during the illegal protest. Beijing city government warned that demonstrators risked severe punishment. Picture: CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP

No one knows for sure Tank man’s name, or whether he’s dead or alive. Still, Time magazine named the man one of the century’s top 20 revolutionaries, whose “moment of self-transcendence [was seen] by more people than ever laid eyes on Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and James Joyce combined.”

But it’s unclear whether Tank Man has ever been aware what an enduring symbol he became because, in China, the image remains barred. (The identity of the tank driver, too, remains unknown to the public.)

Shortly after the incident, a British tabloid identified Tank Man as Wang Weilin, 19, the son of Beijing factory workers. But efforts to substantiate the report ran into dead ends.

A Chinese couple on a bicycle takes cover beneath an underpass as tanks deploy overhead in eastern Beijing, on June 5, 1989. AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing

In a 2004 piece on Tank Man, Los Angeles Times writer John Glionna contacted British author Robin Munro, who had called the reporter who identified the man as Wang, to determine his sources.

“After talking to the journalist for about half an hour, It was decided that his story was not reliable,” Munro told the paper. “It all seemed so incredibly coincidental, and also completely unlikely that a journalist with no China experience, and sitting in London at the time, would be able to identify Tank Man so easily.”

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin was interviewed in 1999 and asked what had happened to the man.

“I think never killed,” Jiang answered in English. He said government authorities searched for the protester but did not find him.

While the image of Tank Man is widely known outside of China, inside the country very few people have seen it. The nation’s Internet censors make sure it is extremely difficult to find — assuming people even know what to look for.

A French TV crew tried to do some man-on-the-street interviews in Beijing about the crackdown, showing passersby the picture of Tank Man and seeing what they recalled.

Within 10 minutes, police arrived and ordered the journalists into a squad car, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported.

They were taken to a station for questioning and later accused of “disturbance of public order.”

A huge crowd gathers at a Beijing intersection where residents used a bus as a roadblock to keep troops from advancing toward Tiananmen Square in this June 3, 1989, photo. AP Photo/Jeff Widener

On May 1, 1989, one month before Chinese troops killed hundreds of protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhao Zhiyang, made his case for compromise in a private session of the Politburo. “Democracy is a worldwide trend,” he said, according to former Washington Post reporter Philip Pan’s excellent book “Out of Mao’s Shadow.” Zhao went on: “If the party does not hold up the banner of democracy in our country, someone else will, and we will lose out. I think we should grab the lead on this and not be pushed along grudgingly.”

Zhao lost out, as did the protesters. But Chinese leaders were not content to simply shut down the protesters and fire Zhao. They and the movement for political liberalisation they represented were considered so dangerous that they had to be forgotten completely. Zhao was banished to house arrest, where he lived out his years in forced isolation. As for the protests and massacre in Beijing, they never happened. Discussion of the events on June 4 remain so taboo and so heavily censored that, when people do dare to discuss them, they often refer to “May 35th.”

The student’s demonstration was relatively small, it involved many of the universities in Beijing, but still, that’s just a tiny part of the population. They caught the imagination of the general population, who felt that what they were fighting for was worth fighting for: an end to corruption, an end to special privileges for senior officials in the Communist Party. … In Beijing, one in 10 of the population was joining in, and that includes all the old people, all the little children. So it was massive. … In fact, it seemed everyone was down at the square. Because it was like you were demonstrating in favour of motherhood and apple pie: Who could argue with anti-corruption? Everybody was for it.

The government said nobody was shot at Tiananmen Square, nobody died at Tiananmen Square. So then later they said 1,000, but they were mostly soldiers.

Speculation continues to circulate about Tank Man’s fate. According to film footage and witnesses, he was walking alone along the six-lane avenue, holding a bag of shopping, when he saw the tanks and decided to do something.

Thousands of Chinese nationals were detained and imprisoned for their involvement in the protests, some of them kept in jail for almost their entire lives. Others were executed. No one has been able to determine whether Tank Man was among them.

Popular: The doctored photograph is a reference to the 54-foot yellow duck created by Florentijn Hofman, which floats in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. This shows a copy of the duck in Tianjin, China.

More than a quarter century after the massacre, the Chinese government’s extensive censorship apparatus—which employs two million online censors — still rigorously blocks information about the protest. The ban is so total that not only is the search term “Tiananmen Square” censored, but so too are related words and phrases. Authorities have even gone as far as blocking combinations of the numbers 6, 4, 1989 that might obliquely reference the date of the protest, June 4, 1989. So for many members of the world’s largest online population, the facts about the bloody crackdown have been erased.

The Tank man himself might be unaware of these photos.  When students at the Beijing University, where all the protests started, were shown copies of the iconic photograph 16 years afterwards, they “were genuinely mystified.” Some of them believed the images to be fake.

To this day, Chinese authorities don’t allow open discussion of the so-called “June 4th incident,” in the media or on the internet. China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei went as far as to censure US calls to provide a full account of the crackdown, calling them “political prejudice”. Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular social media platform (an approximate version of Twitter) bans searches about this incident or simply redirects them to other, “harmless” events.

Censored: Photos like this one are mocking China’s censorship. The Chinese authorities banned the phrase ‘big yellow duck’ as an internet search item after a prankster substituted tanks for ducks in this doctored version of a world famous photograph.

Twenty-eight years ago, a movement for peace, freedom and democracy was brutally squashed. Twenty-eight years ago, a man took his shopping back and stood in front of moving tanks, to defend what he believed in. We don’t know who he was and what happened to him, but we do know what he stood up for. His courage and effort were not in vain. The images moved the world.

There was not just one “tank man” photo. Four photographers captured the encounter that day from the Beijing Hotel, overlooking Changan Avenue (the Avenue of Eternal Peace), their lives forever linked by a single moment in time.


April 15, 1989 – Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader, dies. Hu had worked to move China toward a more open political system and had become a symbol of democratic reform.

April 18, 1989 – Thousands of mourning students march through the capital to Tiananmen Square, calling for a more democratic government. In the weeks that follow, thousands of people join the students in the square to protest against China’s Communist rulers.

May 13, 1989 – More than 100 students begin a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. The number increases to several thousand over the next few days.

May 19, 1989 – A rally at Tiananmen Square draws an estimated 1.2 million people. General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, appears at the rally and pleads for an end to the demonstrations.

May 19, 1989 – Premier Li Peng imposes martial law.

June 1, 1989 – China halts live American news telecasts in Beijing, including CNN. Also reporters are prohibited from photographing or videotaping any of the demonstrations or Chinese troops.

June 2, 1989 – A reported 100,000 people attend a concert in Tiananmen Square by singer Hou Dejian, in support of the demonstrators.

June 4, 1989 – At about 1 a.m. Chinese troops reach Tiananmen Square. Throughout the day, Chinese troops fire on civilians and students, ending the demonstrations. An official death toll has never been released.

June 5, 1989 – An unidentified man stands alone in the street, blocking a column of Chinese tanks. He remains there for several minutes before being pulled away by onlookers.

June 5, 1999 – Approximately 70,000 people in Hong Kong take part in a memorial vigil.

June 1, 1999 – The National Security Archive publish “Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History.” The archive includes US State Department documents related to the events that took place during the demonstrations.

January 2001 – Two Chinese scholars publish “The Tiananmen Papers” amid controversy. The papers are presented as a collection of internal government documents including transcriptions of notes, speeches meeting minutes and eyewitness accounts of the historical disaster. The Chinese government call the papers fabricated material.

February 2006 – Former journalist Yu Dongyue is released from prison after serving 17 years. He was arrested during the Tiananmen Square protests for throwing paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong.

June 4, 2009 – Tens of thousands of people commemorate the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square at a gathering in Hong Kong. In Beijing, journalists are barred from the square while the government blocks foreign news sites and Twitter.

April 2011 – The National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square is newly renovated and open to the public. The building contains no exhibits mentioning the events of June 1989.

2012 – Wuer Kaixi, one of the organisers of the Tiananmen Square protest, attempts to return to China by turning himself over to the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC. The embassy does not answer the door.

June 3, 2015 – Twenty-six years after the uprising in Tiananmen Square, a State Department Spokesperson issues a statement calling for the release of those still serving “Tiananmen-related sentences.”

October 15, 2016 – China is set to release Miao Deshun, the last known prisoner of the uprising, according to Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based human rights organisation.

For nearly 28 years, David Chen hid away a treasure chest of black-and-white photographs that he took of the protest movement that erupted at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the spring of 1989.

Tiananmen Square mystery: Who was ‘Tank Man’? – LA Times

Tank Man – Wikipedia

Tiananmen Square: What happened to Tank Man? | The Independent

Tiananmen Square mystery: who was ‘Tank Man’?

The Unknown Rebel – TIME

What Happened to the June 4, 1989 ‘Tank Man’? – Vision Times

The Unknown Rebel – TIME

Tank Man’: The iconic image that China doesn’t want you to see

Tiananmen Square Massacre: 6 Facts to Know |

The Memory Of Tiananmen | The Tank Man | FRONTLINE | PBS

Tiananmen Square ‘Tank Man’ photographer Jeff Widener shares …

For Many Of China’s Youth, June 4 May As Well Be Just Another Day …

Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History

THIS DAY IN HISTORY – Crackdown at Tiananmen begins – 1989 …

Beijing Tiananmen Square, Gate of Heavenly Peace

Hidden Away for 28 Years, Tiananmen Protest Pictures See Light of …

Tiananmen Square incident | Chinese history [1989] |

Tiananmen Square: Watch commemorates 1989 crackdown – BBC News

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.