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Thirty years ago, after weeks of student-led protests, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in Beijing. When the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators tried to block them from entering the Square, the 200,000 Chinese soldiers accompanying the tanks, were ordered to open fire. Hundreds of people died, possibly thousands. In the three decades since the tanks have become perhaps the most poignant symbols of the harshness of the Chinese government’s response to what is referred to by the government as the June 4th Incident and what most of the world refers to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The entire episode is rife with potent imagery, gifting posterity with real human symbols of resistance and bravery. The picture of one million people packed into the square, punctuated by tens of thousands of pro-democracy placards vying for space with an equal number of bright red flags of the People’s Republic of China, a testament to the power of those people.
Bloodied protesters, carried away from the carnage by their compatriots. Bicycles, a symbol of Beijing life if ever there was one, crushed by tank treads. Demonstrators staring down the troops sent in to enforce martial law, framed by massive white banners proclaiming “Give me democracy or give me death!”
Above them all, one skinny man in a white button-up shirt and black pants, armed with nothing but his groceries, defiantly facing a row of tanks.
This person, known to the world only as Tank Man, has emerged an unidentified hero; a symbol of the power of human freedom. He has become a meme, a hashtag, a faceless icon of resistance against oppression. Nowadays people around the planet celebrate the anniversary of the events by posing with bags on social media in homage to his anonymous courage.
Heroes are not so hard to come by as many people think, as Mr. Rogers may say, “Look for the helpers.” There are always heroes in every tragedy. Each horror a fresh opportunity for strangers to demonstrate the best that humanity has to offer. The events of June 1989 offered no small number of helpers, unsung heroes who offered everything and asked for nothing.
Tank Man is one such hero, whoever he is or was. We will likely never know his name, what his purpose was, or what he said to the soldiers in the tanks he was blocking.
Tank Man seemed to be a normal guy, going through a normal routine on an abnormal day. As he crossed the street, on the crosswalk like a normal person on a normal day, he was obviously not a part of the protests. For some reason, that we will never know and can only speculate on, he swerved halfway across the street and walked towards the lead tank. He stopped, facing the tank, and waited for it.
The tank stopped just feet away from him. Cheers erupt from the throngs of thousands, Tank Man seems to wave their chants away. Gasps of fear and terror can be heard from the foreign observers.
The tank tried to move around him. Tank Man sidestepped in front it again.
The tank stopped again. Tank Man climbs up onto the turret and appears to try to speak with the soldiers inside. Gunshots ring out, rifle fire emanating from nowhere in particular but further describe the chaos and danger of the situation.
One of the soldiers waves Tank Man away and closes the turret hatch. Tank Man keeps speaking and motioning for the tanks to go the other way. More gunfire.
The tank moves forward again. Tank Man resumes his position in front of the tank, arms at his side. The video ends there.
We know from eyewitness accounts that two other civilians rushed towards him at this point and swiftly escorted him to safety. Two more heroes.
There are at least two more heroes that we know of from that day but are never recognized. They too are anonymous, they too are silent, they too saved at least one life that day.
The soldiers in that tank were faced with a choice. A series of choices really. They were told to end the protests. In the pursuance of their duty, a single stubborn man prevented them from doing so. Multiple times.
Over and over again, this little man challenged them. And every time they took the humane way out.
The tragedy of Tiananmen Square, whatever its name, is mitigated by the humbling humanity of the men inside that tank. Soldiers are supposed to follow orders. They didn’t. Chinese soldiers spent that day and the day before shooting hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed civilians. These men didn’t.
We don’t know their names. We never will.
The world is appropriately awed by acts of self-sacrifice like those of Tank Man. Boldness in the face of possible death and dismemberment should be valorized, praised, and emulated. People like Tank Man risk their lives for others, usually strangers.
But so did the soldiers in that tank. No one knows what happened to them afterward but nobody thinks they received promotions and accolades from their superiors. The chances are high that they were imprisoned for their compassion — they may even have been executed.
The image of the Tank Man is not one of a solitary hero. He’s just the only visible one. There were other heroes in that picture and video, inside the tank. Risking your life to protect others is heroic but sometimes the decision to spare someone’s life is the most heroic of all. We can never remember their lives but we should always honor what they did.