30 Years Later, Fate of 'Tank Man' Is Unknown

As is the identity of one of the world's most famous protesters
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 4, 2019 8:43 AM CDT
Somehow, We Still Don't Know Who 'Tank Man' Is
In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square. The iconic image was taken by Jeff Widener.   (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

It is not just one of the most enduring images from the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, but one of the most enduring images from the 20th century, period, observes the New York Times. The image, of course, is that of "Tank Man," the protester who stood alone in front of a row of moving tanks in Beijing and would not let them pass. Thirty years later, his identity and his fate remain a mystery:

  • The shot: The iconic photo (at least the most widely circulated version) was taken from a sixth-floor hotel balcony by AP photographer Jeff Widener, who was initially miffed that the man showed up, reports CNN. Widener thought the man was going to mess up his shot of the tanks—until the remarkable standoff ensued. American exchange student Kirk Martsen smuggled Widener's film out of the hotel in his underwear, and it was soon transmitted around the world.
  • Video: See the standoff in this video. Tank Man appears to be carrying shopping bags when he brings the tanks to a halt. At one point, he climbs aboard the lead tank. Eventually, though not seen in the video, onlookers drag him away. See an image of that via Business Insider.

  • Who is he? The identity of Tank Man remains a mystery, as does his fate. Every theory possible is out there. Some think he escaped and remains in hiding; more think he was arrested and likely executed. The Times notes that former President Jiang Zemin suggested in 1990 that he had not been killed. “Only the Chinese regime knows what became of him,” says Tiananmen protester Yang Jianli, now a rights activist based in the US.
  • China forgetting? A BBC reporter walked around showing the image, and about 80% of the people say they didn't recognize it, though the report notes that some may have been leery of admitting it. But the results jibe with a Netherlands study that found only 37% of internet users in China knew the image, compared to 49% around the world. That's largely seen as the result of Chinese censorship of references to Tank Man.
  • The protest: The Los Angeles Times has a primer on the pro-democracy protests, led by students demanding an end to corruption and the right to free speech. About 100,000 marched on April 27, 1989, with strikes and sit-ins following. The crackdown came on June 4, with the number of dead still unclear; estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands. Tank Man's protest came as tanks left the square, on June 5.
(More Tiananmen Square stories.)

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