By: Javier C. Hernandez
BEIJING – He has become a global symbol of freedom and defiance, immortalized in photos, television shows, posters and T-shirts.
But three decades after the Chinese Army crushed demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square, “Tank Man” – the person who boldly confronted a convoy of tanks barreling down a Beijing avenue – is as much a mystery as ever.
In an age of cyber-sleuthing and intense media scrutiny, it has become almost impossible for historical figures to remain anonymous. But 30 years later, Tank Man is still a source of enduring fascination and intrigue.
Tank Man was photographed on June 5, 1989, in the immediate aftermath of a deadly government campaign to clear Tiananmen Square of protesters.
Many of the images of the crackdown showed the streets of Beijing engulfed in carnage and chaos, but the image of Tank Man – a lonely figure in a crisp white shirt, clutching two shopping bags, standing defiantly before hulking armored vehicles – stood out.
Photographers and video graphers for overseas news outlets captured the standoff from the balconies of a nearby hotel, as the tanks tried to maneuver around Tank Man and came close to running him over. Images of the encounter became some of the most recognized photographs of the 20th century.
The sense of mystery has contributed to the popularity of Tank Man, experts say, allowing people to project their own hopes and convictions onto him.
“It is Tank Man’s mystery that enables his enduring presence – that permits him to be a code for so many Western values and desires,” said Jennifer Hubbert, an associate professor at Lewis & Clark College who has written about him.
Chinese propaganda officials once used the image of Tank Man to defend the government’s handling of the protests, arguing that the military had shown restraint by not killing him.
But more recently, the government has worked to eliminate the memory of Tank Man, censoring images of him online and punishing those who have evoked him.
A court convicted four men in southwestern China this year for selling bottles of liquor that referenced him, alongside the words, “Never forget, never give up.”
As a result of the government’s campaign, many people in China, especially younger Chinese, do not recognize his image.
A recent survey of 239 internet users in China by Rutger van der Hoeven, a lecturer at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, found that 37 percent of respondents said they recognized a photo of Tank Man, compared with 49 percent on average across the globe. In a separate question, about one in six Chinese respondents correctly identified the protests at Tiananmen Square as the backdrop for the photo.
Outside of China, Tank Man has endured in popular culture, the subject of numerous books, documentaries, television shows and art exhibits.
“Chimerica,” a recent British television series, featured a plot about an American photojournalist embarking on a mission to find the mysterious figure.
The German company Leica Camera drew criticism from Chinese internet users after it released a promotional film this spring that recreated the scene of a photographer capturing images of Tank Man.
In Taiwan, Tank Man has inspired an inflatable art display outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. The display shows a giant green tank pointing its gun directly at a man in black pants and a white shirt.
The display is part of an exhibit titled “Back to Tiananmen: Memory as a Form of Resistance” by Shake, a Taiwanese artist.
In an interview, Shake, who goes by only one name, said she wanted to create a piece that would be “giant but not scary.” She said that in Taiwan, Tank Man represents not only the Tiananmen massacre but also the ongoing threat of military invasion by Beijing.
“Everyone would think if they have the same courage to resist when they learn the story of Tank Man,” she said.
The fate of Tank Man has been a subject of wide debate. Some believe that he was most certainly executed in the days following his act of disobedience. Others have argued he might have been saved and could be in hiding. Former President Jiang Zemin suggested in an interview with Barbara Walters in 1990 that he had not been killed.
The police and government of the city of Beijing did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the man’s identity and whereabouts.
Yang Jianli, a Tiananmen protester who is now a rights activist based in the United States, has circulated a petition recently calling on President Xi Jinping to disclose what happened to Tank Man.
Mr. Yang described Tank Man as a “symbolic, final act of defiance, the last tragic gesture” in the Tiananmen protests.
“Only the Chinese regime knows what became of him,” Mr. Yang said. “It has the responsibility to be transparent about the truth not only about the Tank Man, but the whole truth about the Tiananmen incident.”