The Tank Man. Twenty five years after he casually walked and then stood in front of a column of mighty T-59 Chinese tanks, shocking and stopping them near the Tiananmen Square, his identity remains a mystery. Wearing a white shirt, a pair of black trousers and carrying two shopping bags, he literally came from nowhere, became the icon and a symbol of protest for millions and then disappeared — at least till now — forever. Just like that.
But 25 years later, the ruling-Communist Party of China (CPC) still appears afraid of what that thin, anonymous man stood for.
A jittery CPC leadership has ordered a large-scale crackdown against any commemoration of the 25th year of the Tiananmen Square incident — some call it a massacre — where pro-democracy protesters, many students among them were either killed, detained or driven away by their own army.
Online news and information about the months-long, country-wide protests that culminated around the Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989 are blocked. No books are available on the event. Journalists have been threatened not to report on it; some, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, were questioned for hours at police stations. Dozens of lawyers, academics and activists have been detained across China in the run-up to the date.
The Chinese government’s efforts to censor information about Tiananmen have clearly worked: the younger generations, even those in their ‘30s have little or no clue about the incidents. The Tank Man? Who? It could well be the name of a new smartphone game application.
But for those who witnessed the events, the memory is etched. “I covered the demonstrations for weeks. That evening (June 3-4), I was heading towards the Holiday Inn in Lido (in east Beijing) when I saw the troops coming into the city. I turned around and went to Tiananmen Square where I interviewed people for several hours as we waited for the troops to arrive. I left just before 1 am for the room I was renting (with two other reporters) at the Beijing Hotel. From our balcony, I watched the massacre unfold,” said Jan Wong, who covered the protests as a journalist wrote on it and is now based in Canada.
Wang Chao Hua was among the protesting students in the 1989. “At the time, I was an MA student in the Graduate School attached to the Chinese Academy of Social Science, majoring in modern Chinese literature. I got involved in the protests for the first time in the evening prior to (former CPC general secretary) Hu Yaobang’s official funeral, when students occupied the Tiananmen Square overnight to defy a municipal order of partial curfew for the funeral. The next day, I responded to a call for representatives of various colleges to have a meeting on what we could do next. Most of my schoolmates kept silent first and then didn’t reject my proposal to volunteer myself. From that moment on, I kept active in the city-wide student autonomous association to the end,” Wang, now with the University of California, told HT over email.
Wang remembers being “amazed, stunned, disoriented” because of the “pouring out of the masses” during the protests.
Why is the event still such a grave taboo for the government?
“The taboo rests on the fact that the current leadership descends directly from the leadership that carried out the suppression. To go back to 1989 and alter the verdict threatens the legitimacy of everyone in the Party who has benefited from what happened in 1989. The danger of reopening Tiananmen is…that the entire logic of political control may be thrown into question,’’ Professor Timothy Brook, China Chair, Department of History, University of British Columbia told HT.
Then there is the issue of how many were killed during the protests,
No one is sure. Wang said she knows about protesters being killed in the Square.
“…That is to say, in addition to the people who died in hospital, we have solid evidence, as the Tiananmen Mothers (a group of parents) have demonstrated, that there are people killed on the spot, roughly “buried” (covered by dirt dug out nearby), and moved away by trucks, all handled by the martial law armies within a few days,” she said.
And, of course, the Tank Man. Many are optimistic he is alive somewhere in China, living a life of quiet anonymity; probably in the knowledge that his one act of defiance 25 years ago is as relevant in the new century.