“The Tank Man” (PBS’s Frontline)


When in graduate school, and as the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre unfolded, I stood in protest with my Chinese friends temporarily in the United States for an American education. It was a strange time for them, but it was also a time during which I learned a great deal about “The Bicycle Kingdom.” My Chinese friends, although in America, still had much to fear from the Chinese government. I became one of the few people they felt could be trusted enough for them to speak their true feelings. That was because even among themselves they did not know who might be agents of the communist Chinese government, and what might be relayed back. The vast majority of them did not wish to return home to China, but knew they had no choice. I recall our discussions and listening to their anguish. They knew their friends and families would essentially be held hostage to guarantee their return. And, all did return to communist China upon completing their studies.

But what I remember most was a lone man standing in front of, and even stopping, an entire column of tanks. He remains one of my personal heroes to this day. I later asked other Chinese nationals what happened to him afterward, but no one knew for certain. Some gave me what they thought was his name, but were not certain. Others told me he sits in a jail cell to this day, almost certainly. Two decades later, he remains too great a symbol of possible freedom and the power of a single person for the Chinese government to ever let him be seen again. But maybe tonight on PBS’ Frontline, we will find some verifiable truths. Please take time to watch not only the trailer, but the program itself, The Tank Man. Below is the Frontline synopsis:

On June 5, 1989, one day after Chinese troops expelled thousands of demonstrators from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a solitary, unarmed protester stood his ground before a column of tanks advancing down the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Captured by Western photographers watching nearby, this extraordinary confrontation became an icon of the fight for freedom around the world. On April 11, veteran filmmaker Antony Thomas investigates the mystery of the tank man — his identity, his fate, and his significance for the Chinese leadership. The search for the tank man reveals China’s startling social compact — its embrace of capitalism while dissent is squashed — designed to stifle the nationwide unrest of 1989. This policy has allowed educated elites and entrepreneurs to profit handsomely, while the majority of Chinese still face brutal working conditions and low wages, and all Chinese must endure strict political and social controls. Some of these controls regulate speech on the Internet — and have generated criticism over the involvement of major U.S. corporations such as Yahoo!, Cisco, Microsoft, and Google.

The Tank Man stops a column of tanks from rolling into Beijing

One Response to ““The Tank Man” (PBS’s Frontline)”

  1. SippinWhisky’s Distillery » Blog Archive » BMW Destination X Says:

    […] I found it more than a bit interesting to discover a Chinese BMW web site. It serves as undeniable proof that a 2000+ year-old country which preceded the birth of Christ, and then outlasted the Romans, the Mayans, The Age of Enlightenment, The Middle Ages, The Italian Renaissance, Britain's dominance of the seas, Nazi Germany, and finally the former Soviet Union is looking toward the 21st century. And although there is little more of merit at the site aside from the opening page's short Quicktime piece (which is totally out-of-step with the daily life of almost every citizen), I find myself thinking just maybe The Tankman did make a difference. […]

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