Tank Man, Beijing, 5 June 1989

19 September 2019 Michael Epis

Tank Man, Beijing, 5 June 1989

This is perhaps the most iconic protest photo ever taken – not that anyone in China has ever seen it, where it remains banned. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people still do not know what happened in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989. Hong Kongers are all too aware of that history.

A lone man, dubbed Tank Man, holding his shopping, stands before a convoy of tanks, headed down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, on the edge of Tiananmen Square, the heart of Chinese power. His stance symbolised the staunchness of the Chinese protestors who in May and June 1989 converged day after day, week after week, on the square, demanding democracy and human rights. The Chinese government refused their demands then, and haven’t budged since.

Context is everything. In June 1989 Hungary pulled down walls and threw open borders, creating a route for East Germans to escape their Communist country to the West. On 4 June Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarnosc won the elections in Poland, bringing an end to Communist rule. The Chinese Communist Party was determined that it would not meet the same fate.
And so the protest was crushed, in one ghastly blow, on the night of 3-4 June.

We know what happened, because the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, told us, through his tears. The Chinese authorities told the demonstrators to get out of the square.  “When all those who had not managed to get away were either dead or wounded, foot soldiers went through the square, bayoneting or shooting anybody who was still alive,” Hawke said. “They had orders that nobody in the square be spared. Children, young girls, were slaughtered mercilessly…“Tanks then ran backwards and forwards over the bodies of the slain, until they were reduced to pulp, after which bulldozers moved in and pushed the remains into piles which were then incinerated by troops with flamethrowers.

“Incredibly, despite the horrors and the risks, we have witnessed acts of indescribable bravery on our television screens. A lone man standing in front of a row of tanks, the strength of his will stalling the might of armour as it rolled down a Beijing street.”

Nobody knows what became of Tank Man after two men dragged him out of the tanks’ path. Chinese authorities broke into the hotel room of American photographer Charlie Cole, who had hidden the film in the bathroom.

Talking of Tank Man, Cole said: “He made the image; I just took the picture.” Cole died this month, aged 64, in Bali, where he lived.

Words by Michael Epis » photo by Getty

This article first appeared in ed#596