Tiananmen Tankman at 25

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This past Wednesday, June 4, marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, when the Chinese government ordered the Red Army to open fire on unarmed students and democracy supporters in Tiananmen Square.

This is a piece I originally submitted to the Asian American Literary Review’s recent anthology on Asian American art and activism in the 90s. It is about the “Tankman,” the most powerful image for me from Tiananmen. If you’re interested, PBS’ Frontline has a great documentary


If you ask me, the 90s began the summer before, near Tiananmen, on Chang’an Avenue, on the day after the People’s Army opened fire on the thousands of Chinese citizens who had occupied the Square for almost two months. They were protesting government corruption and demanding political and economic reform.

While it is astonishing in itself that so many Chinese were willing to so publicly come out and voice their dissatisfaction with the government, for me, what happened the day after the government’s equally unbelievable (and horrific) solution to end the protests resonates more than the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre (or the June Fourth Incident — Liù-Sì Yùndòng in Mandarin).

Born and raised in the US, hearing about the dissatisfied masses taking to the streets to publicly protest the object of their ire is pedestrian and expected.

Born and raised in the US, learning about China and Communism, it was surprising to hear about so many people coming out to protest the government. And – despite what I had been taught in social studies about the rigidity and cruelty of a Communist state – it was still unsettling to hear about the government’s violent solution to ending the protests and reclaiming the Square.

I remember hearing a reporter commenting, “Even among the Chinese, their government’s use of force on its own people was shocking.” (or something to that effect). There were other stories about how the People’s Army had never before opened fire on its citizens and how essentially soldiers were opening fire on their neighbors and cousins (and literally their brothers and sisters).

Despite these shocking reports and surprising events, it is the image of the Tank Man, with his briefcase in one hand and a plastic grocery bag in the other, standing in front of a column of tanks on a deserted street that pops into my head when asked to think about “meaningful events” in the 90s.

Immediately, what made him more shocking and surprising than the rest was how very common and ordinary he was. Looking at him, white shirt, black slacks, with his briefcase in one hand and his lunch the other, he could have been any one of the millions of salary men across the globe on their way to work that morning.

But on that morning, on the morning of June 5, 1989, that one particular salary man stepped out of line and into the street right in front of a column of moving tanks!

From what I’ve read about him since, I’m not alone in imaging him as this Average Joe who had finally had enough of the protests and the violence. I’d like to think (like everyone else) that he was waving the tanks away, saying: “Get out! Get off my street! Get out of my city! You’re not welcome here!”

In many ways he is the antithesis of the protests. He didn’t stay. He just came and went. The protestors stayed in the Square for almost two months. The People’s Army stayed even longer than that. The Tank Man’s stand lasted less than an hour.

(There is so much that could be read into that.)

All the days and months associated with the protests are lost in the shadow of the image of the man in black and white standing in front of a column of tanks. That image more so than any others or the video of him climbing onto the lead tank and calling into the various holes and ports poignantly inspires our imagination – our dreams— Yes, one person can make a difference.

We love our loners. In our movies, in our books, and in our music, we are moved by the lone hero challenging the looming, infinitely larger, evil entity. We feel inspired by the sheer will or intellect (or simply force) our lone hero employs to subdue his opponents.

But in real life, however, we take comfort in not being the only one, that we are not alone in our beliefs and that there is strength in numbers. We don’t want to be the only one sitting in Zuccotti Park. We want to congregate, to meet up, to connect.

With social media and smartphones, I like to believe I am not the only one who takes for granted how easy it is to connect with people now. Email was new in the 90s, so were laptops, high speed Internet connections, and online filesharing.

We can talk more now. And we can do it faster and easier and with far greater reach than we did. But I don’t know that what we are saying with such great speed and reach is that much more meaningful or inspiring.

Social media has brought us closer together in the “Global Village” but it has yet to make us more tolerant or accepting of each other.

I think this is why that image of the Tank Man is so powerful to me. And why he is the most powerful image from the 90s to me. I think it would have been different if he would have tossed his grocery bag at the tank or if he would have screamed and yelled and hit the tank.

The power of his image is that he walked out calmly in front of the tank and simply waved for it to turn around and go away. He did not rush the tank, he did not yell. He climbed onto the tank and called in to its occupants. He did not dehumanize the crew in the tank. Instead he treated them as equals, as thoughtful human beings who could be reasoned with.

Despite his being named among the Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of the Century, no one really knows who he is or why he stepped out in front of those tanks or what happened after he was whisked away by two or three men from the crowd.

But it is not his celebrity that makes me think of him with regard to meaningful events, it’s his anonymity – the fact that he could be the seat next to me on the subway ride home from work.

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