On this day in 1989, an anonymous young Chinese protestor—commonly known as “Tank Man” or the “Unknown Rebel” in the West—made history when he stopped a column of Chinese Type 59 tanks that were assisting the military’s forceful removal of protestors in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
The incident took place in the middle of Chang’an Avenue, along the south side of the historical Forbidden City. The young man stepped out into the road holding a shopping bag in each hand—no one knows what was in them—and calmly stood in front of the advancing tanks to halt their progress. The lead tank stopped, and tried to circumnavigate him rather than run him over, but the man just slowly stepped from side to side to block the way through.
It was a peaceful, stilted protest, and eventually Tank Man and the tank arrived at an impasse. He clambered onto the tank, and appeared to converse with its crew through the turret, and still he refused to let them past. Eventually two figures in blue arrived and pulled him away into the crowd—some think these were government agents, but others suggest they were just concerned citizens saving his life.
To put the event in a wider context, the Tiananmen Protests were against a wide-ranging set of grievances including inflation, poor job prospects (especially for students) and the spiraling corruption of the party elite, but the one incident that really ignited this bonfire of complaints was the death of the deposed Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang.
No one knows the true identity of Tank Man, nor his fate; some claim that he was captured and executed, others that he is still alive and well somewhere in China. Some suggest that due to the heavily censored coverage of the Tiananmen Protest in China, he may have no idea how internationally famous his actions have become.
Tank Man’s brave actions are known the world over through photographs and video footage taken. The most famous photograph of the standoff was captured by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, who was shooting from a hotel balcony on the sixth floor, almost half a mile away. At the time he had the flu and was also injured, as a stray rock had hit him in a mob riot on Chang’an Avenue the night before—in fact his camera took most of the impact, and might have saved his life. Despite his health, Widener still managed to capture one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
Credit: © JEFF WIDENER/AP/Corbis
Caption: The Tank Man was trying to block the way of tanks with his own body alone during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, photographed by Jeff Widener.