It’s one of the most iconic images of the 20th century: a man standing perfectly still, facing a large tank as it bears down on him. He’s unarmed and alone. Defenseless … except for an unshakable conviction that freedom is so important, it’s worth risking your life.
Which is just what that man was doing when in June 1989, he joined thousands of other fellow citizens in China for what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The tank, which was moving down Beijing’s Chang’an Boulevard and could have plowed over him easily, stopped directly in front of him. He stood his ground.
The tank turned right to try and maneuver around him. He immediately stepped to his left and continued to block its path. The tank went left; he moved right back in front of it. Right again, then left. It was no use. His message was plain: You want to move? You want to continue to oppress us? You’ll have to do it, quite literally, over my dead body.
How many of us would have had the courage to stand there in the face of what seemed like certain death? How far would we have to be pushed before we said, “Enough”?
The people of China had certainly been pushed quite a bit by that point. The scene described above was the climax of a series of events that began almost two months earlier when former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack.
Yaobang had supported reforms that helped bring economic opportunity and some political reforms to China. But hardline Party members forced him from office because he appeared to tolerate student protests that pushed for further freedoms. Now he was truly gone, and many people throughout China were in mourning.
Wang Dan, the main student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests, was among those who encouraged tens of thousands of students, workers and civilians to fill the streets of Beijing in the wake of Yaobang’s death. On May 13, they began a hunger strike.
“After the hunger strike, the student movement transformed into a country of political protest with a lot of other groups like workers and especially intellectuals,” Wang reflected 20 years later. “That made our government very scared.”