Twenty-four years ago today, journalists and other observers watched from hotel balconies and the streets below as one unknown man stood, defiant, in front of a column of tanks as they left Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
The tanks, and the soldiers within them, had helped crush a weeks-long protest, which reached a revolutionary crescendo in the square on June 2nd and 3rd 1989.
The magnitude of “Tank Man”‘s act is even more astonishing with the perspective of this image which I found here on Dangerous Minds:
Jan Wong, controversial Canadian journalist of Chinese descent (and later dissent), who would subsequently write the stunning book Red China Blues, wept as she watched the man climb on the lead tank, and attempt to speak with the soldiers in inside.
She forced herself to stop crying, she said in a CBC interview last night, so she could bear witness to the man’s death, which she thought was inevitable.
When I first blogged about “Tank Man” four years ago, I wondered about him and “his amazing act of defiance, a modern-day David defying the Chinese army Goliath.” I asked myself then, as I do now:
Who was he? How old was he? Where did he come from? Did he have brothers and sisters? A wife? Children?
Would his act have caused his family to feel pride? Or shame? Or both? What prompted him to put himself in front of the tanks, in an incredible Mexican standoff that astonished the world?
What was he thinking and feeling as he stood there? Was he afraid? What prompted him to climb up the lead tank? What, if anything, did he say to those within? What, if anything did they reply? How is he remembered in China today? As a hero? As a villain? Or both?
According to this 2006 blog post, Tank Man was alive (although apparently not-so-well) in Taiwan (a the time the post was written), and going by the name of Wang Weilin. It’s impossible to know the veracity of the report.
Like Wong, photojournalist Charles Cole observed from a hotel balcony overlooking the scene; he also believed the man was about to die. Cole knew the Chinese Public Security Bureau was monitoring him from a nearby rooftop. And, like Wong, he felt he must bear witness to the events in the street below.
“This is something this man is giving his life for,” he recalls in a documentary interview, “It’s my responsibility to record it as accurately as possible.”
He hid his exposed film in the toilet tank in his hotel room (minutes before Chinese Public Security Bureau personnel broke down the door), and retrieved it several days later. Cole’s photograph won the 1989 World Press Photo of the Year.
Jeff Widener also immortalized the moment and won a Pulitzer prize for his image (uppermost), which he took from the hotel room he said he was too terrified to leave. How ironic! He wrote about the experience in a commemorative blog post in 2009.
The work of these two photojournalists turned Tank Man, who some believe was not a student, but an ordinary citizen going about his daily business, into a catalyst and inspiration for change makers worldwide. In 1998, Time Magazine included Tank Man in its 100 Most Important People of the Century.
In last night’s CBC interview, Jan Wong wrapped her memories of the event in a reference to free speech:
“Freedom of speech is like oxygen,” she said “You don’t notice when you have it. But when you don’t, all of a sudden you go: ‘I can’t breathe.”
Coincidentally, over the last couple of weeks, during the heated debate over Facebook content that legitimizes violence against women, many, including Facebook itself, have used the right to freedom of speech as an argument in support of allowing such content in public online spaces. Soraya Chemaly, one of three organizers who spearheaded the campaign to get Facebook to change its policies addresses the free speech aspect of the initiative here.
From where I sit, the right to free speech does not include a right to incite hatred and violence against others women, men or children. It does include the right to speak out against political regimes, and to commemorate events such as those of Tiananmen Square in 1989. That right has again been taken away for millions of Chinese even as I write this post.
In 2009, I also stood alone, in a square (Trafalgar Square in London, England), in support of the Green Revolution in Iran, during which the people of Iran demanded freedom from oppression. Their struggle is ongoing.
Like Tank Man, I was compelled then to take a stand for something in which I believe, just like I recently joined others in making my voice heard on the issue of violent misogynist content on Facebook. I blogged about it here, here, here and here.
On this day, June 4, 2013, I remember that every one of us, every woman, every man, and every child, in addition to having the right to express an opinion, but not to incite violence and hatred against others, also has the power to change the course of history when we take a stand, however big or small it may feel to us at the time we make it.
Thank you Tank Man, whoever you are, still with us or not, for helping me and the world to breathe a little easier. Because, as we all well know, life is breathtaking, even on the best of days.
- Censoring a commemoration: what June 4-related search terms are blocked on Weibo today (citizenlab.org)
- You have to see this zoomed out photo of Tiananmen Square’s ‘Tank Man’ (dangerousminds.net)
- tiberiussempronius: moments: “Tank Man” June 5th, the morning… (basedheisenberg.tumblr.com)