Heroes that we’ll never know



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.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  • In My Opinion

    Which party deserves credit for good times?

    I have a question for my Republican friends.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">CELEBRATION:</span> Dante Fascell at his annual Labor Day picnic in 1980.


    Dante Fascell: They don’t make ’em like they used to

    On Monday I found myself thinking back to the Labor Day picnics thrown for years by the late Dante Fascell, the “short, pie-faced Miami congressman,” as a writer for this newspaper once described him. After which he often used that phrase to describe himself. Pretentious Dante was not. Honest he was, as well as an outstanding public servant.



    Carvalho: Common sense on student testing

    Florida, like many states, is facing an education-reform debate that some say is driven too much by think-tank ideology instead of common sense and research-based findings. The repercussions are putting the validity and reliability of the state’s accountability system in jeopardy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category