Reflecting on “Tank Man” 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago today Chinas Tiananamen Square in erupted in violence as the powerful Chinese military moved in to confront and remove the nearly one million student protesters who had gathered in the square and its surrounding area over the preceding days. By the time it was over, between several hundred and several thousand people were dead. To this day China suppresses knowledge of the event, so we will never know for sure how many casualties there were.
The student protesters were demanding democracy, greater accountability for politicians and high ranking officials as well as increased freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
In the midst of all this chaos, one brave man stepped in front of a column of Chinese tanks. Several journalists snapped pictures of the event, one of which would go on to become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Known simply as “Tank Man”, the photo has become a lasting symbol of resistance against an overwhelming enemy.
The image is a brilliant example of the classic “David and Goliath” struggle. A lone but brave individual standing up against a force much stronger and more powerful than he. Not afraid. Not intimidated.
While “tank man” didn’t necessarily win his battle as David had, his struggle was nonetheless just as meaningful and important to his people. First of all, it was amazing enough that this person, instead of running for cover, chose to bravely confront the tanks in a wide open space. Even more amazing than that, when the lead tank attempted to go around him, the man moved as well so he would STILL be blocking the tanks path. Think about the amount of courage it takes to be so defiant and stand ones ground in a situation like that.
For most of us, there are times in our lives where we have to be this guy. Where we have to take a stand against incredible odds even when there may be significant personal risk to us in doing so. That’s what it means to believe in something. That’s what it means to fight for something. That’s what it means to be human.
But the most incredible thing about this photo may be that, despite all the records and technology we have access to today, we still don’t know who this person was and probably never will. He may still be in China, he may not. He may be dead by now, he may still be alive. There’s no way to be certain.
This particular period in history brought about a number of major changes in world politics. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran died in 1989. Then, in 1991, the world saw both the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We also saw Desert Storm which would have major implications over American relations with the Middle East for decades to come.
But it is perhaps this photo that is the most iconic image of that period. Literally one man versus an army.
Remember: He didn’t kneel. He didn’t put his hands up. He didn’t run. He just stood there defiantly as if to say: “Try me.” The world needs people like this. People who don’t run, people who take on a fight head on even with extreme odds. These are kind of the people that can help bring about change.
Thirty years later, the struggle of the students who protested at Tiananmen lives on. China is still repressive communist state. In fact, the very photo we are discussing is banned in that country and is anything to else to do with the protests. Even simply talking about it in public is enough to draw attention from police. Chinese democracy is still a goal for the distant future.
But as long as images like “Tank Man” live on, so too will the human spirit that rests at the core of them.
Not everyone enjoys the freedoms we enjoy in America and other democratic nations. We fought hard to win them and we’ll fight hard to keep them.
Just like “Tank Man” did.