What happened to Tank Man?

What happened to Tank Man?

There are few symbols of defiance as potent as the iconic image of an anonymous man blocking the path of a tank column. But, though this is one of the most memorable photographs of all time, surprisingly little is known about the participants.

So, let’s dig into the background behind the image and the theories on what happened to the individual known as Tank Man.

Tiananmen Square

Between April and June 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing rocked the Chinese political system. Over the 1980s the Chinese economy had faltered and this, coupled with intense political restrictions, saw students take to the streets.

Their demands were to remove institutional corruption, increase governmental accountability, freedom of the press, protections to social security, and legally protected freedom of speech. Weeks of negotiation went nowhere and on June 3 1989 the Chinese government declared martial law.

What followed came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Military force was used to clear protesters from the area, with civilian death estimates ranging from several hundred to several thousand. To this day discussion of the event remains highly sensitive and censored within China.

Tank Man’s role

The famous “Tank Man” picture was taken one day after the massacre. A column of tanks was leaving the square and an individual simply stood in their path. Video footage of this solo act of non-violent defiance shows him repeatedly moving to block the tanks as they attempt to pass him, forcing them to halt to avoid running him over.

Tank Man then climbs onto the lead tank’s turret and appears to have a short conversation with the crew. He descends from the tank, they start their engines again, and he once again stands in their path.

The incident ended with two unknown figures in blue dragging the man into a crowd, where all three disappear.

What happened to him?

The identities of everyone involved in this incident – Tank Man, the tank crews, and those who dragged him away – remain a mystery. However, there are theories.

Soon after the photograph was published the U.K. newspaper The Sunday Express named the individual as Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student. However, despite intense searches no trace of this named individual has ever been discovered in official documentation and the source of this information is unknown.

Many assume that the bystanders who dragged the man away were plain-clothes cops and Tank Man was imprisoned and quickly executed by firing squad. However, those with trusted contacts within the Chinese government think otherwise, with writer Jan Wong reporting that they “have no idea who he was either”.

This was backed up by interviews with General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who said he believed the man was never found, remains alive and also pointed out that, in a certain light, the incident actually demonstrates the humanity of the Chinese military (an argument that would hold a teeny bit more water if the tanks weren’t returning from massacring civilians).

If Tank Man is alive it’s in his best interests to preserve his anonymity, especially if he remains in China. The image remains one of the most potent symbols of defiance against the Chinese government, is widely censored and, if his identity were to be exposed, we suspect the rest of his life would become very difficult indeed.

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