Photos That Changed History: Tiananmen Square

I was going through our archive of historical photos and looking for one to quiz the Geek Club on. I figured they’d know the Migrant Mother, the V-J Day photo, all of the photos from the Vietnam War. However, I figured I’d be able to stump them with something that happened when they were all kids. Instead, I wound up losing that bet when History Geek not only recognized it but remembered when it (and the video of the event) was on the news. Of course, he immediately got sentimental and started sounding like someone in his 70s instead of his 30s. I think the phrase “Get off my lawn” may have been mentioned.

Regardless as to whether or not you remember this event, it was one that did do much to change the course of history at the close of the Cold War era. So, here’s the photo and the story behind it!

Tank Man

The 1980s were a turbulent time in history. The US President, Ronald Reagan, had ramped up military spending and weapons programs in a bid to force the Soviet Union to back down. Revolutions were taking place behind the Iron Curtain as countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary began clamoring for reform. Pope John-Paul II, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Reagan stood together against the Soviets at a time when most of the world thought they were crazy for doing so. “Cowboy,” “warmonger,” “idiot,” were descriptions often given to one or all of these three. Movies such as The Day After and Wargames showed us how dangerously close to nuclear war we were, how pointless it was, and how devastating it would be for anyone who managed to survive the initial blast and fallout.

And then, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the Cold War ended even though everyone had known it would last forever. History Geek remembers being surprised at the Berlin Wall coming down, the Iron Curtain being torn apart, and the nations behind it rushing to join the West as quickly as they could. And though most of the world was focused on the USSR and the USA, Red China was still a place of concern for many.

China in the late 1980s was undergoing the same inner turmoil as the USSR. With the ending of collectivized farming and the slow introduction of more Western free-markets, China was torn between those who wanted further Westernization and the hard-liners who wanted to keep China “pure” of such things. Hu Yaobang was one of the Chinese leaders who favored a more moderate line that allowed for some loosening of the Communist grip while keeping the Party in power. His laxness and soft approach to the student protesters who gathered around China calling for greater reform was cited by the Party as being part of the reason for the later bloodshed.

Hu Yaobang died in April 1989 and his death created something of a flashpoint for the protesters. Now that they had a legitimate reason to gather, they began banding together to mourn Hu Yaobang and to demand still greater reforms. The most well-known place where student protesters gathered was Tienanmen Square in the Forbidden City in Beijing. From here students launched a hunger strike in hopes of getting the Communist Party to reform itself, reduce the corruption in the Party elite, and to introduce more modern democratic government into China. When the crowds had not been cleared out by June, the Party leadership ordered the army to move in and clear the Square. On June 4, the tanks began rolling.

As the tanks made their way through the streets to Tienanmen Square on June 4 and 5, many tried to stop them. The individual seen in this photograph is just one of many who did what they could do to impede the tanks and keep them from reaching the square. No one knows who the “tank man” is — China’s leaders say he was not arrested or killed following the Tienanmen Square massacre. However, no one has come forward to claim the mantle of being Tank Man. In the days just after June 4, some news services reported that the man in the photo was named Wang Weilin but no solid confirmation has been made. Time Magazine calls him the “Unknown Rebel.”

Whoever he was, though, he had a lot of nerve to stare down those tanks.

— da Bird