What happened to Tank Man, China’s most famous Tiananmen Square protester?

A Chinese man blocks military tanks on Changan Avenue, near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 5 1989.
A Chinese man blocks military tanks on Changan Avenue, near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 5 1989.
Image: AP Photo / Jeff Widener
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A day after Chinese military killed at least hundreds, if not thousands of demonstrators in Beijing in 1989, a wiry man in a white shirt stepped in front of a line of moving tanks near Tiananmen Square and become one of the most famous protesters of the 20th century.

Twenty-four years later, his identity is still a mystery. He is called simply Tank Man. Today, on the anniversary of the crackdown, Chinese bloggers paid homage to him with imitations of the face-off.

The man blocked the path of the tanks, even as they gunned their engines. He climbed onto the first tank, pounded on the hatchet, and appeared to speak to the soldiers inside. When he stepped back down in front of the tank, two men ran into the street and pulled him away. The confrontation became one of the most enduring images of the pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests that swept China that spring and summer.

Speculation continues to circulate about Tank Man’s fate. Thousands of Chinese nationals were detained and imprisoned for their involvement in the protests, some of them kept in jail for almost their entire lives. Others were executed. No one has been able to determine whether Tank Man was among them.

A report (link in Chinese) cited a Hong Kong professor who said the man was a friend of his and an archaeologist from Changsha who had come to Beijing to protests. According to the professor, the man eventually escaped to Taiwan where he worked at the National Palace Museum. (The museum in Taiwan denied the report.) Others believed he was executed.

But it seems at least as plausible that the man disappeared back into his normal life. If he had left the country, he would have been free to speak out, according to Canadian journalist Jan Wang, who witnessed the confrontation. And if authorities had found him, they would have put him on public display, she told PBS. She believes there’s a good chance he’s alive and living quietly in China. The Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy Movement in China said in 1998 that it had obtained official party documents that showed authorities had no idea what happened to him. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin said he couldn’t confirm (video) whether the man was arrested or not. He broke from speaking to Walters through an interpreter and said in English, “I think never, never killed.”

It’s also possible that Tank Man may have been simply a regular citizen in Beijing who had seen or heard of the brutal government crackdown that left students, workers, children, doctors and passers-by dead, many of them shot in the back. According to film footage and witnesses, he was walking alone along the six-lane avenue, holding a bag of shopping, when he saw the tanks and decided to do something.