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Tank Man

In the face of official silence about 1989 and the Tank Man, the program concludes with Thomas’ quest to find out what became of the Tank Man and who he was. In the end, his identity remains a mystery, but the symbolism of his act of defiance continues to have power. “That story … is not getting weaker because of time. Because we don’t know who he is, it’s actually getting stronger,” says Xiao Qiang of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley. “In the long frame of history … human freedom, courage, dignity will stay and prevail, and that’s what that picture will testify [to] forever.”

On June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese army’s deadly crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, a single, unarmed young man stood his ground before a column of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Captured on film and video by Western journalists, this extraordinary confrontation became an icon of the struggle for freedom around the world.

Seventeen years later, veteran filmmaker Antony Thomas goes to China in search of “The Tank Man.” Who was he? What was his fate? And what does he mean for a China that today has become a global economic powerhouse?

Drawing on interviews with Chinese and Western eyewitnesses, Thomas recounts the amazing events of the spring of 1989, when a student protest that began in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic central space of the nation, spread throughout much of the rest of China. Several weeks later, when the government sent in the army to end the demonstrations, the citizens of Beijing poured into the streets in support of the students. “You had a million people on the street, minimum. … That was unprecedented, definitely in modern Chinese post-revolutionary history,” says John Pomfret, who was in Beijing at the time, reporting for the Associated Press.

The demonstrations ended in a massacre on the night of June 3-4, when the government sent the troops into the city with orders to clear Tiananmen Square. Eyewitnesses recount what happened — from the first shots fired in the city’s outskirts, to the students’ withdrawal from the square in the early hours of June 4, to the Tank Man’s courageous stand the following day.
From there, Thomas looks at what the Tank Man’s life might be like in today’s China. China observers and scholars, including Orville Schell, talk about the turning point the nationwide unrest of 1989 represented. “After the massacre of 1989, [Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping] in effect said, ‘We will not stop economic reform; [but] we will, in effect, halt political reform.'”

Almost two decades later, the educated elite who led the protests of 1989 have benefited handsomely from China’s rapid economic growth, but many Chinese workers still face brutal working conditions and low wages. “A lot of factories do not even have one day off,” says labor expert Dr. Anita Chan who has been researching working conditions inside China for 15 years. “That means seven days a week, 13 hours a day.”

In fact, some experts see the emergence of two Chinas: one modern, wealthy and urban; the other rural, poor and disenfranchised. There is evidence that unrest among workers and peasants is growing; in 2005, there were more than 87,000 “civil disturbances” in the country. “China is on a knife’s edge,” says Dr. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. “If we in the West are not aware of this, the leaders in Beijing are very much so, and this is their top concern. They know that the stability is very fragile.”

The Chinese government has responded to this threat by cracking down on dissent, and on the media. The regime has managed to erase the Tank Man’s image, famous throughout the world, from Chinese memory. Thomas shows the iconic picture to undergraduates at Beijing University, the nerve center of the 1989 protests; none of them recognize it. Central to the regime’s struggle to control information is its filtering of the Internet, a complex undertaking that raises serious issues about the role of Western IT companies in China’s censorship strategy.

In the face of official silence about 1989 and the Tank Man, the program concludes with Thomas’ quest to find out what became of the Tank Man and who he was. In the end, his identity remains a mystery, but the symbolism of his act of defiance continues to have power. “That story … is not getting weaker because of time. Because we don’t know who he is, it’s actually getting stronger,” says Xiao Qiang of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley. “In the long frame of history … human freedom, courage, dignity will stay and prevail, and that’s what that picture will testify [to] forever.”

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  1. You have to understand that even if you confiscated all the wealth of all the rich people and distributed it to the poor, the poor will still be poor!!! But everyone else will perish after you do that!!!! You have to understand that in this world, pastry does not fall from the sky at the cost of you opening your mouth and rivers do not run with milk and honey!!!! Prosperity is not built on back breaking labor, the poor countries do have that labor more so than the rich ones and yet they are still poor lol……
    Taxing the rich and confiscating their wealth to give to the poor is not a solution to poverty!!! Name one country who reduced poverty through foreign aid and charities!!!!! Name one!!!!!

  2. Even this documentary had the decency to acknowledge that before, the peasants were slaves of the state and survived at its pleasure and now they could hold their land on lease and grow their products and sell them in an open market and because of that, their incomes doubled!!!! And actually, the whole urban-rural divide was before the reforms as mao actually secretly sneered at the peasants and favored the urban workers before the peasants and in fact, he killed more peasants than ever in human history!!!!!
    And that human rights official saying that the people have no right to education and health care lol……Well, it might sound good to provide healthcare and education for free to the people but you have to see the whole picture and realize that they do not fall from the sky and that someone has to work and labor to bring education and healthcare into existence!!!! That it is still someone’s labor!!! Is not what marxism is supposed to condemn??? Someone having a right to others labor and exploiting them for free??? I understand if they are too poor to pay for that and the factory girls send most of their money home to pay for the education!!!
    But I also saw that in norway, where education is provided for free, the income tax is 50% so the working girl did get provided free education and healthcare but she has to turn over half of her income to the state as a tax so are those things really free??? And it is easy to say that the government caring for the people and providing those services for free but since they have to be worked and produced, the government has to take the money from somewhere and pay for those services provided free to the people!!! And who the government ultimately takes the money from to pay for those services??? The people of course, who else???? There really is no such thing as a free education, housing or healthcare because the government has to pay for them to be brought into existence before it can be provided free to the people, nooo?????
    So the government taxes the rich and then middle class and then below to pay for the services it has to provide for free to the people!!! Who the government the taxes to pay for them!!! It is the same people!!!!!

  3. You could say it is the communist government’s fault for being in throes with capitalism and not caring about the worker’s welfare!!!! But that is crap!!! Because before the economic reforms, the peasants were slaves of the state and lived at the state’s pleasure!!! Like the catastrophe of the great leap forward, it was the millions of peasants who paid with their lives for Mao’s project!!!! Because the officials continuously pushed up fake numbers, the state had to confiscate the grain until the peasants were left with nothing!!!! And up to 45 million peasants perished, the greatest man-made famine in history!!!! While some of the grain was rotting in granaries lol………So to say that the officials cared about the welfare of the people before the economic reforms is a disgusting, evil lie!!!!! They cared so much that they let all those millions perish and not one of them made a peep that perhaps chairman mao was wrong???? And actually, the one official who did raise the famine was later left in a jail cell to die during the cultural revolution!!!!! Did Mao or the officials care about the people that were slandered, maligned and had to endure the brutal struggle sessions and was even verbally and physically abused by the mob???? And a few millions that were killed even??? And the people that could hold them to account before the reforms is also another evil lie!!! The Gang of four was tried and punished but mao the main architect was already dead lol….and many other officials put the gang of four on trial to save their own skin!!!!! So in essence, they escaped scot free!!!!!!

  4. Okayyy, I have only mixed feelings about this documentary lol……On one hand, it is well-produced but on the other hand, it is seriously flawed lol…..Like this site seems to lean toward communism lol……with its ridiculous high rating of pro-collectivist agendas!!!
    First of all, who should be blamed for the worker’s crisis that they migrate and can not negotiate with the management et cetera?? The communist one party rule or its economic liberalization?? It has to be asked!!! One makes the other possible so does the communist government make economic liberalization possible or is it the economic liberalization that make the authoritarian government possible?? Fundamentally, it is the communist party that sets the agenda so should not the worker’s plight be put at the feet of the government and not economic growth and industry and urbanization et cetera??? The government cared much more about the people’s welfare and the same government is ready to shoot at its unarmed innocent citizens at the first sign of defiance!!!! Like it happened at the square massacre!!! Would you call that truly caring?? Or is it caring as long as you are under my command and power?? The next thing about corruption is that Mao and his officials were literally having wine and parties twice a week while the peasant starvation was going on!!!!! Would you not call that corrupt????

  5. What do you mean the educated elite that benefitted handsomely from the economic reform?? Many of the student leaders live in exile and likely to never see their families or homeland again!!! Why is its brutal working conditions and low wages blamed on liberalization, why????
    Did the workers have great working conditions and high wages before the liberalization??? What about Mao’s laogai system and forced labor camps that were called china’s auschwitz??? Why worker’s poor conditions and low wages are always blamed on liberalization and economic freedom while marxist states literally deported and sent millions upon millions to forced labor camps into literal slavery??? There are examples all over and only recently, Venezuela put a forced labor on much of its population and one author even claimed it is not socialism’s fault lol……But poor working conditions and forced labor is liberalization’s fault, right?????