A slight man in a white shirt stood before a row of tanks, and the world watched in awe.
That was 25 years ago this past week in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China. His defiant act came after the military had opened fire on thousands of pro-democracy protesters, many of them students, who had taken over the square for weeks.
The violent crackdown became known as the Tiananmen Square massacre — by some estimates, more than 1,000 were killed — and the man in front of the tank as Tank Man.
No one knows who he is. No one knows if he’s still alive. Chinese leader Jiang Zermin, when asked if he knew what had happened to the man, once said, “I think never killed.”
In the video you can see him facing the tank as if it were a bull. When the tank makes an attempt to go around him, he runs in front of it again.
At some point he climbs on top and talks — or attempts to talk — to whoever is behind that killing machine.
After what seems like an eternity, but it’s in fact only a minute or so later, a man on a bicycle and two other people approach and haul him away.
People who’ve analyzed the footage say it is obvious he was taken away by friendly, concerned folks. Chinese security personnel would have been brutal.
In the 2006 PBS Frontline documentary Tank Man, some journalists and human-rights activists say it doesn’t matter who he was. He stood for “everyman,” his actions embodied the feelings of a whole generation of people who were tired of 40 years of Communism, corruption and scarcities.
Perhaps, but I’d like to know. After all, no one else rushed to stand with him. He may have stood for every man, but the fact is he stood alone.
Others have said that solitary act was so meaningful because it reminded us of the power of the individual before the state, but the opposite is true.
For a brief moment, he must have felt powerful and even fearless. But, in the end, the state prevailed.
Twenty-five years later, the Communist Party of China endures. In a piece in the Financial Times last year, writer Jamil Anderlini describes it this way: “Many dire predictions of imminent collapse have come and gone, but the party has endured and even thrived, especially since it opened its ranks to capitalists for the first time a decade ago.
“These days the revolutionary party of the proletariat is probably best described as the world’s largest chamber of commerce, and membership is the best way for businesspeople to network and clinch lucrative contracts.”
Yes, the people in China live better than they did 25 years ago (those in the cities do; the interior of the country is another story), and U.S. universities are full of Chinese students eager to get a U.S. degree to do even better at home.
Money matters, so does prestige. Ideology not so much. After decades of discipline, hardship and rhetoric, money is king — just like in the capitalist societies so demonized by Communists for so long.
But there is another way, as the world has witnessed in Eastern Europe, with the countries that were once in the orbit of the former Soviet Union.
In an eerie coincidence of political mirrors, on the same day of the Tiananmen massacre, Poland voted the communists out of power in a historic election that allowed the participation of the opposition party, Solidarity.
Though the election was rigged for the Communist Party to remain in power, Solidarity’s win was so overwhelming that it paved the way for the end of Communism not only in that country, but also in the region.
Shortly after the election, economic measures were introduced and Poland moved firmly into the market-economy model. In December 1990, Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, became president of Poland as well as a symbol of perseverance and freedom for the whole world. That, too, endures.
In this case we know not only the name and face of the man who stood before the tank, so to speak, but also the name of those driving the tank — the Communist leaders who stepped aside. Transitions require two willing parties, those with the courage to act and those with the courage not to.
In Tiananmen Square, there were two heroes, both unknown to the world.