Tank Man: Where Is He Now? – UNCOVERED

On June 5th 1989, one brave man stood firmly in front of a column of approaching tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing We don’t know if that fearless man was aware of the consequences of his actions, but we do know that some lucky photographers were able to capture that moment, turning him into a symbol of resistance all over the world

In April 1999, Time magazine included the mysterious man in its 100 Most Important People of the Century But, fame aside, what’s the hero’s real identity? And where is he now? The event took place along the Chang'an Avenue, one day after the Chinese military violently suppressed the Tiananmen protests The turmoils started in April, in reaction to rapid development and social changes by the government The reforms of the 1980s had created a market economy, which benefited some people but seriously disaffected others The protest is well remembered for the active role of students

They called for greater accountability, democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech When the protest reached 400 other cities, and the Tiananmen Square revolt grew to 1 million protesters, the government decided they were a political threat and resolved to use force The State Council declared martial law on May 20th and mobilized 300,000 troops to Beijing In the early morning of June 4th, they advanced into the city centre and killed both demonstrators and bystanders in the process The exact amount of victims is still unknown, but it is estimated around 2 to 3,000 unarmed civilians were killed; Which brings us to the events of June 5th, 1989

As shown in both pictures and footage of the event, the man wore a white shirt and black trousers, and held two shopping bags He peacefully approached the advancing tanks and, once they stopped, he waved at them with one of the bags The tanks tried to drive around the man, but he repeatedly stepped in front of them, without any show of aggression At this point, the tank column stopped and, after a brief pause, the man climbed on top of the lead tank and seemed to have a short conversation with a crew member at the gunner's hatch After less than a minute, the man got off while the tanks started up their engines

Still, the man kept his position At this point, video footage shows two figures in blue emerge from the bystanders, pull the man away and disappear with him into a nearby crowd, letting the tanks pass through To find out who Tank Man was, we should first ask who were those men in blue? Some, like Jan Wong, a Canadian reporter who was correspondent for The Globe and Mail at the time, believe they were just concerned bystanders, who cared about Tank Man’s security But a few notable witnesses believe the two men were government officers This is supported by the experiences of the five photographers who captured the event, each with a unique point of view

One of the best-known photographs of the Tank Man episode appeared in both Time and Life magazines and was taken by Stuart Franklin Franklin was afraid the PSB, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, could trace him and seize his work Therefore, he smuggled his roll of film, concealed in a box of tea, out of the country with a French student Franklin wasn’t the only one who had to deal with the PSB Charlie Cole, in Beijing for Newsweek, was in the same building as Franklin at the moment of the event

Like his colleague, he was aware of the importance and the potential consequences of Tank Man's actions He had to capture it on film However, while he was taking photographs of the scene, he noticed the PSB watching him through binoculars He had to think fast if he wanted his photos to make it out of China As he recalls, “I went in and took the film out of the camera and reloaded it into the plastic film can, and went into the toilet, took off the top of the toilet and put [the film] in the holding tank, put the toilet top back on

” About 15 minutes later, the PSB raided his room and destroyed an unused roll of film and undeveloped images of wounded protesters that Cole had shot the night before Then, they forced him to sign a confession he had been photographing during martial law and confiscated his passport Luckily, Cole returned to the bathroom a day and a half later to find that the film was still there, so he was able to retrieve it and send it to Newsweek But, the most-used photograph of the event was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth-floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about 800 meters away Just one day before, Widener was injured while documenting the military taking over the city

Therefore, when his office called asking him to photograph the army’s occupation of Tiananmen Square, he was pretty scared to do so He said, “[That day] I know there will be secret police at the hotel who’ve been chasing journalists with cattle prods I get into the lobby and think they’re going to bust me when I see this American exchange student” Widener persuaded the boy to pretend to be his friend and take him to his room His photograph was syndicated to newspapers around the world and earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1990

Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters was at the Beijing Hotel as well, and was able to take several shots from room his room On June 5th he decided to leave the hotel and walk around to take some pictures However, the PSB stopped him and forced him to stay into his room He stood next to the window and eventually witnessed the Tank Man event What an odd coincidence

Speaking of coincidence, on June 4th 2009, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the massacre, Associated Press reporter, Terril Jones, released a photo that shows the Tank Man from ground level, a different angle from all the other known photos Jones revealed he was not aware of what he had captured until he printed his photos just a month before Unfortunately, we still cannot see Tank Man’s face So many people witnessed Tank Man's incredible act But, who is the real man behind the hero? Shortly after the incident, the Sunday Express identified him as Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old archaeology student and active member of the students’ protest

However, the paper’s claim has been rejected by the Communist Party of China, which stated ""We can't find him We got his name from journalists We have checked through computers but can't find him among the dead or among those in prison” Over the years, several theories arose about Tank Man’s fate In 1999, Bruce Herschensohn, former political consultant of President Richard Nixon, stated he believed the man was executed 14 days after the demonstration

Others believe he was executed by a firing squad a few months later According to Jan Wong, based on her correspondence with the government press, the authorities had no idea who the man was either She also believes Tank Man is still alive somewhere on the mainland The South Korean Yonhap news agency spread the idea he escaped to Taiwan to work as an archaeologist in the National Palace Museum On the other hand, the Chinese government's response to Tank Man changed over time

At first, while the PSB put pressure on photographers and reporters, the government tried to exploit Tank Man to their advantage They emphasized how the tanks stopped and did not run him over, spinning it as a symbol of humanity from the army, that worked in the people’s interests and not against them Moreover, since then, the government has worked to eliminate the memory of Tank Man, censoring images of him online and punishing those who evoke him in any away In March 2019, a court convicted four men for selling bottles of liquor that referenced Tank Man with the words, “Never forget, never give up” As a consequence of the heavy censorship, many people in China, especially the young, don’t even know who Tank Man is, or what his actions meant

It’s almost unbelievable that a man so famous all over the world, is almost unknown in his own country But what’s the Chinese government so afraid of? Thirty years of censorship suggest it is extremely important to them Maybe, they feared the man would become a sort of martyr in people’s eyes, fueling their spirit of rebellion If so, it doesn't seem impossible that the Chinese government caught Tank Man and killed him, then covered it up One thing is for sure

On July 23rd 2019, former Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng died He is considered to be directly responsible for the 1989 massacre Newspapers even nicknamed him The Butcher of Beijing But Li’s role in the event was praised by the Chinese government, which stated, “During the political unrest in the spring and summer of 1989, Comrade Li Peng […] took decisive steps to stop the disorder and calm the counter-revolutionary unrest [] We must learn from his revolutionary spirit, his noble morality, and his refined work style Comrade Li Peng is immortal!” Over the past three decades, the Chinese government has incessantly attempted to bury Tank Man’s story However, the people’s revolutionary spirit has not vanished, nor has their need for truth Films, documentaries, art memorials and books keep the memory of those days alive and inspire people to demand answers

In 2017, rights activist Yang Jianli, now based in the United States, started a petition calling on President Xi Jinping to disclose what happened to Tank Man Despite the Chinese government’s efforts, it looks like Tank Man is far from forgotten

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