For a photo so well-known and easily recognizable, almost three decades later the world still wonders who was the man who blocked the tanks at Tiananmen Square and what happened to him. The “Tank Man” photo is one of history’s most famous, yet mystery shrouds the unknown rebel at Tiananmen Square. Especially what his motivations and ultimate fate were. The mysteriousness has only added to the legend that is Tank Man.
The fact that so little is known about what happened to the Tank Man should not be surprising. China has a history of extreme censorship and the actions of the government in crushing protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 are among the most carefully concealed. Despite his worldwide fame, many people in China have never seen the Tank Man picture. Discussion of the events is discouraged. With all of this secrecy, the Tiananmen Square tank man picture mystery may never get exact answers, but there are enough clues for us to conjecture who Tank Man was in addition to being one of history’s greatest badasses.
Nobody knows who Tank Man is and likely never will. The anonymous man, who appeared to be student-aged, walked into the Square with a pair of shopping bags in each hand. His game of chicken with a squadron of tanks was likely not a planned protest. A theory his shopping bags give credence to.
Once the photo had widely circulated, a British tabloid identified Tank Man as Wang Weilin, a 19 year old. Though, their source for the identification was unclear. No record of a Wang Weilin exist leading researchers to believe it was a hoax.
One professor in Hong Kong claimed that Tank Man was a friend of his. He said he was an archaeologist who escaped to Taiwan after the incident but could provide no evidence of this. Tank Man will likely go down in history an anonymous hero.
It’s tough to make a man who is staring down an entire column of tanks seem even braver, but Tank Man does appear so given the context of what was going on in Tiananmen Square at the time. The Square in Beijing was the scene of student-led protests in the summer of 1989 with young people demanding a move toward democracy. The government did not take kindly to this, and declared martial law.
As the weeks wore on and protesters continued to occupy the Square, the China’s People’s Liberation Army were sent in with orders to clear the area at any cost. On June 3rd and 4th, tanks and soldiers poured into the Square and began killing protesters. The death toll ranged wildly from the hundreds to the thousands. Tank Man made his stand on June 5th, 1989.
The imagery of Tank Man confronting the tanks is familiar to many, but not everyone knows what happened after. After forcing a long column of tanks to stop in their tracks, Tank Man got up onto the lead tank and demanded that its driver come out for a conversation. The chat didn’t go anywhere and Tank Man jumped down, once again halting the tank as it tried to move forward.
Eventually, two men emerged from the crowd and escorted Tank Man away. That’s the last that anyone would see of him. There are two basic schools of thought on what happened. The optimistic version of events is that the two men who grabbed Tank Man did so to protect him and prevent his arrest. This is backed up by a few eyewitnesses who claim that “the people who took the Tank Man away were concerned people.” This ended up being the official party line when Chinese General Secretary Jiang Zemin told Barbara Walters that Tank Man was “I think…never killed.” Jiang claimed that the Chinese authorities had never caught up with Tank Man and other Chinese officials have stated that no records of his arrest exist.
Other sources recounting Tank Man's last stand are more in line with the atrocities of Tiananmen Square. Bruce Herschensohn, who served as deputy special assistant to Richard Nixon, told a group in 1999 that he knew that Tank Man had been executed 14 days after the standoff. Different reports claim that a death by firing squad came for Tank Man after a few months in captivity.
There is no way to confirm whether Tank Man lived or died for his act of defiance.