Beijing seemed utterly subdued the morning of June 5. However, as foreign journalists and photographers, including Jeff Widener of the AP, watched from their hotel balconies as a column of tanks trundled up Chang'an Avenue (the Avenue of Eternal Peace), an amazing thing happened.
A young man in a white shirt and black pants, with shopping bags in each hand, stepped out into the street and stopped the tanks. The lead tank tried to swerve around him, but he jumped in front of it again.
Everyone watched in horrified fascination, afraid that the tank driver would lose patience and drive over the man. At one point, the man even climbed up onto the tank and spoke to the soldiers inside, reportedly asking them, "Why are you here? You have caused nothing but misery."
After several minutes of this defiant dance, two more men rushed up to the Tank Man and hustled him away. His fate is unknown.
However, still images and video of his brave act were captured by the western press members nearby, and smuggled out for the world to see. Widener and several other photographers hid the film in the tanks of their hotel toilets, to save it from searches by the Chinese security forces.
Ironically, the story and the image of the Tank Man's act of defiance had the greatest immediate effect thousands of miles away, in Eastern Europe. Inspired in part by his courageous example, people across the Soviet bloc poured into the streets. In 1990, beginning with the Baltic states, the republics of the Soviet Empire began to break away. The USSR collapsed.
Nobody knows how many people died in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The official Chinese government figure is 241, but this is almost certainly a drastic undercount. Between soldiers, protesters and civilians, it seems likely that anywhere from 800 to 4,000 people were killed. The Chinese Red Cross initially put the toll at 2,600, based on counts from local hospitals, but then quickly retracted that statement under intense government pressure.
Some witnesses also stated that the PLA carted away many bodies; they would not have been included in a hospital count.
The Aftermath of Tiananmen 1989
The protesters who survived the Tiananmen Square Incident met a variety of fates. Some, particularly the student leaders, were given relatively light jail terms (less than 10 years). Many of the professors and other professionals who joined in were simply black-listed, unable to find jobs. A large number of the workers and provincial people were executed; exact figures, as usual, are unknown.
Chinese journalists who had published reports sympathetic to the protesters also found themselves purged and unemployed. Some of the most famous were sentenced to multi-year prison terms.
As for the Chinese government, June 4, 1989 was a watershed moment. Reformists within the Communist Party of China were stripped of power and reassigned to ceremonial roles. Former Premier Zhao Ziyang was never rehabilitated, and spent his final 15 years under house arrest. Shanghai's mayor, Jiang Zemin, who had moved quickly to quell protests in that city, replaced Zhao as the Party's General Secretary.
Since that time, political agitation has been extremely muted in China. The government and the majority of citizens alike have focused on economic reform and prosperity, rather than political reform. Because the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a taboo subject, most Chinese under the age of 25 have never even heard about it. Websites that mention the "June 4 Incident" are blocked in China.
Even decades later, the people and the government of China have not dealt with this momentous and tragic incident. The memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre festers under the surface of everyday life for those old enough to recall it. Someday, the Chinese government will have to face this piece of its history.
For a very powerful and disturbing take on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, see the PBS Frontline special "The Tank Man," available to view online.
Roger V. Des Forges, Ning Luo, Yen-bo Wu. Chinese Democracy and the Crisis of 1989: Chinese and American Reflections, (New York: SUNY Press, 1993)
PBS, "Frontline: The Tank Man," April 11, 2006.
U.S. National Security Briefing Book. "Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History," posted by George Washington University.
Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People - In Their Own Words," ed. Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, (New York: Public Affairs, 2001)