A man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force, became known as the Tank Man or Unknown Protester. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank's attempted path around him. The incident was filmed and seen worldwide.
Currently, there is no reliable information about the identity or fate of the tank man.
The incident took place near Tiananmen on Chang'an Avenue, which runs east-west along the north end of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese government's violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. The man stood in the middle of the wide avenue, directly in the path of a column of approaching Type 59 tanks. He wore a white shirt and black trousers, and held two shopping bags, one in each hand. As the tanks came to a stop, the man gestured towards the tanks with his bags. In response, the lead tank attempted to drive around the man, but the man repeatedly stepped into the path of the tank in a show of nonviolent action. After repeatedly attempting to go around rather than crush the man, the lead tank stopped its engines, and the armored vehicles behind it seemed to follow suit. There was a short pause with the man and the tanks having reached a quiet, still impasse.
Having successfully brought the column to a halt, the man climbed onto the hull of the buttoned-up lead tank and, after briefly stopping at the driver's hatch, appeared in video footage of the incident to call into various ports in the tank's turret. He then climbed atop the turret and seemed to have a short conversation with a crew member at the gunner's hatch. After ending the conversation, the man descended from the tank. The tank commander briefly emerged from his hatch, and the tanks restarted their engines, ready to continue on. At that point, the man, who was still standing within a meter or two from the side of the lead tank, leapt in front of the vehicle once again and quickly re-established the man–tank standoff.
Video footage shows two figures in blue pulling the man away and disappearing with him into a nearby crowd; the tanks continued on their way. Eyewitnesses are unsure who pulled him aside. Charlie Cole (there for Newsweek) said it was the Chinese government PSB (Public Security Bureau), while Jan Wong (there for The Globe and Mail) thought that the men who pulled him away were concerned bystanders. In April 1998, Time included the "Unknown Rebel" in a feature titled Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.
Little is publicly known of the man's identity or that of the commander of the lead tank. Shortly after the incident, the British tabloid the Sunday Express named him as Wang Weilin (王维林), a 19-year-old student who was later charged with "political hooliganism" and "attempting to subvert members of the People's Liberation Army". However, this claim has been rejected by internal Communist Party of China documents, which reported that they could not find the man, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights. One party member was quoted as saying, "We can’t find him. We got his name from journalists. We have checked through computers but can’t find him among the dead or among those in prison." Numerous theories have sprung up as to the man's identity and current whereabouts.
There are several conflicting stories about what happened to him after the demonstration. In a speech to the President's Club in 1999, Bruce Herschensohn, former deputy special assistant to President Richard Nixon, reported that he was executed 14 days later; other sources say he was executed by firing squad a few months after the Tiananmen Square protests. In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that she believes from her interactions with the government press that they have "no idea who he was either," and that he's still alive somewhere on the mainland.
The government of the People's Republic of China has made few statements about the incident or the people involved. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, then-CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin was asked what became of the man. Jiang first stated (through an interpreter), "I can't confirm whether this young man you mentioned was arrested or not," and then replied in English, "I think...never killed" [sic]. At the time, the party's propaganda apparatus referred to the incident as showing the "humanity" of the country's military.
In a 2000 interview with Mike Wallace, Jiang Zemin said, "He was never arrested". Then he stated, "I don't know where he is now". He also stated that the tank stopped and did not run the young man down