For a photo so well-known and easily recognizable, almost three decades later the world still wonders about the man who blocked the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Who was he, 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 regarding his motivations and his ultimate fate. The mysteriousness has only added to the legend.
The fact that so little is known about what happened to 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 its worldwide notoriety, many people in China have never seen the Tank Man picture. To this day, photos of Tank Man and anything referring to the bloody massacre are banned in China. With all this secrecy, the mystery over the Tiananmen Square Tank Man picture may never have exact answers, but there are enough clues for us to conjecture who Tank Man was in addition to being one of history's great anonymous heroes.
Nobody knows who Tank Man is and likely never will. The anonymous man, who appeared to be student-aged, walked onto 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 given credence by the shopping bags in his hands.
Once the photo had widely circulated, a British publication identified the lone, brave protester as 19-year-old Wang Weilin, though its source for the identification was unclear. No record of the existence of Wang Weilin led some 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 he could provide no evidence of this. Tank Man will likely go down in history an anonymous hero.
It’s tough to make a man staring down an entire column of tanks seem even braver, but it does appear that was the case with Tank Man, 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, free speech, and a free press in China. The students initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square after the death of Hu Yaobang, who was a former Communist Party leader. Hu had introduced democratic reform in China. While mourning Hu, students called for a more open, democratic government. Thousands of people joined the students in Tiananmen Square, with the movement gaining tens of thousands supporters by mid-May of that year. The government did not take kindly to this and declared martial law in parts of Beijing.
As the weeks wore on and protesters continued to occupy the square, soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army stormed Tiananmen Square with orders to clear the area at any cost. On June 3 and 4, tanks and soldiers poured into the square and began firing live rounds into the unarmed crowd. The reported death toll ranged wildly, from the hundreds to the thousands. As many as 10,000 people were estimated to have been arrested during and after the protests. Tank Man, pictured wearing a simple white shirt and black pants, made his stand on June 5, 1989.
The imagery of Tank Man confronting the tanks is familiar to many, but not everyone knows what happened afterward. After forcing a long column of tanks to stop in their tracks, Tank Man climbed up onto the lead tank and demanded 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. The tanks attempted to maneuver around Tank Man, but he repeatedly moved to try to block their path.
Eventually, two men emerged from the crowd and escorted Tank Man away. That's the last that anyone saw of him. There are two basic schools of thought about 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 "the people who took the Tank Man away were concerned people." This ended up being the official party line when then Chinese General Secretary Jiang Zemin told Barbara Walters that Tank Man was "I think... never killed." Jiang claimed the Chinese authorities 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 President Richard Nixon, told a group in 1999 that he knew 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 non-violent act of defiance.