His brave act of defiance captured the imagination of people around the world. Here, China specialists and eyewitnesses recall the moment and its enduring symbolism, and offer their thoughts on what might have become of him.
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.
… [You saw the Tank Man confront the tanks that day] … What exactly did you see?
I was watching it from the Beijing Hotel, where we had rented a room that looked onto the north side of the square. That morning, I remember, my husband said to me, "You'd better get out here." I rushed out onto the balcony, and I saw this lone person standing in front of this long column of tanks. … The young man -- … I couldn't see his face but I think he was young because of the way he moved, he was very fluid, he didn't move like an older person. … He tried to step in front of the tank. … The tank turned to go around him; the tank did not try to just run him over. I thought, "Wow!" So the tank is turning and then the young man jumps in front of the tank, and then the tank turns the other way, and the young man jumps down this side. And I thought, "What's going on?"
They did this a couple of times, and then the tank turned off its motor. … And then it seemed to me that all the tanks turned off their motors. It was really quiet; there was just no noise. And then the young man climbed up onto the tank and seemed to be talking to the person inside the tank. … After a while the young man jumps down and the tank turns on the motor and the young man blocks him again. … I started to cry because I had seen so much shooting and so many people dying that I was sure this man would get crushed. [And] I remember thinking, "I can't cry because I can't see; I want to watch this, but I'm getting really upset because I think he's going to die."
But he didn't. … I think it was two people from the sidelines ran to him and grabbed him -- not in a harsh way, almost in a protective way. … Then he seemed to melt into the crowd. Then the tanks, after a moment, just started up the engines again, and then they kept going down the Boulevard of Eternal Peace. That was the end. It was amazing. …
Who do you think the people [were] who pulled him away? … Do you think it was concerned citizens or do you think it was the PSB, the Public Security Bureau?
… I think that the people who took the Tank Man away -- I call him the "Tank Man" -- were concerned people. I've thought about this, and given the timing, I don't think the security forces had kicked in that fast. … I think that was still too early. That's one reason … the timing. The second reason is the body language. If you've ever seen security people manhandle a Chinese citizen, they're really brutal. … They twist your arm, they make you bend over, they punch you a few times, they kick you. … So to me, I think he was helped to the side of the road. He wasn't being arrested.
And that raises the intriguing possibility that he's still alive. Do you think there's any likelihood of that?
I think that he is. … I think the chances are pretty good … that he's in China because if he had left -- and many people have left China -- he might have felt free to talk. The fact that we have not heard from him since that amazing incident tells me he's still alive, he's still there. He has not been caught, and he's certainly not telling anybody …
Author of Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement.
The photograph of the young man standing in front of the column of tanks. Do you remember your reaction when you first saw that?
That's the most extraordinary picture of the last half of the 20th century, as far as I'm concerned. You could look at him as unusually brave, but he probably wasn't. He was probably just an ordinary person who was so disgusted at what he had seen for the last few days. This young man, who's obviously on the way to work, sees a column of tanks coming down Chang'an Boulevard and he says, "Right, that's it, I'm going out and I'm going to just stand in front of that column, and I'm going to talk to the commander of the tank column and ask him what he thinks he's doing in the city."
He actually gets up on top of the tank, bangs on the lid and he actually has some sort of a conversation. We don't know what he said. Then after he hops off the tank, he goes back and stands in front of the tank again. The film footage shows several other young men run out of the crowd, grab him and then hustle him off the street, because I think they were afraid that he'd just end up getting run over if he stayed there any longer, and these people then just melted into the crowd and they were gone. We never see his face, we only see him from the back.
It certainly has captured the imagination of people around the world. This is the image that expresses all the frustration of the individual in the face of the massive might of armies and governments. And it's one of those anonymous moments in modern history. We don't really know who he was; there's no certainty about what's happened to him. In fact, he may never have been identified.
What does it say about China that we don't even know [who he was]?
At first viewing, it looks like the lone individual up against the massive power of the state, and I think that's simplifying things too much in China. He was a lone individual indeed, but I think he was simply taken up by the frustration and anger of the moment. He wasn't trying to be a hero; he was caught in events. And so too that column of tanks; we don't know anything about the column of tanks, we don't know who was commanding it, but the army showed itself surprisingly ill organized and somewhat undisciplined during this whole event.
It's not that the government sent in these tanks to crush these people. It's much more ambiguous than that. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it was an extraordinary moment in which a spark of heroism that came from nowhere motivated this young man to go out and face this massive force that he really couldn't do anything about.
China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
Can you remember how you responded when you first saw that picture of the young man stopping the column of tanks -- what it said to you?
In many ways the demonstrations in the spring of '89 [were] about the power of the individual against the state, and so it seemed to sum up in the most graphic and symbolic way, I think, what everybody had been feeling: the power of the citizen to actually have an effect on the might of the state. …
Have you ever speculated on what probably happened to him, or is that really a waste of time?
I think two things are possible. One, in the tumult of that moment, he just slipped back into the crowd and disappeared. On the other hand, I think if he was identified he probably would have met some fairly, fairly stern retaliation and punishment.
Including the possibility of execution.
… Anything is possible in a situation like that. It doesn't take much … to earn a lot of umbrage very quickly and find yourself in a very difficult situation, in prison or otherwise.
Director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Can you remember your feelings when you first saw photographs of that young man facing a column of tanks?
The first time I saw that picture on TV was when I was still in America, a Ph.D. student doing a physics experiment in a field. ... I saw what happened on the street with a young man standing in front of tanks. It took a while for that picture to sink in, because hours later I took off on an airplane on my way back to China. I wanted to do something, anything I can, to help my country and my people. ...
… It's this image [of the Tank Man that] came clearer and clearer in my mind and stronger and stronger, to say, this is what a human being can do with the face of human freedom and dignity in front of this violent power. That ultimate spirit of freedom will last longer than the strength of tanks and machine guns. ... Where [are] Hitler's Nazis? Where is the former Soviet Union? Where is Suharto's Indonesia or Pinochet's Chile? They're all gone, and the Chinese Communist Party and its dictatorship will be gone. And the men standing in front of tanks will stay. ... And that's what this picture stands for me. ...
... [You tried to find him.] What do you think might have happened to him.
Every year on that anniversary I get phone calls, interviews requests. I have journalists, I have teachers, I have students asking my organization where is [he]? Who is [he]? How is [he] now? But I don't have that answer. ... If this man has the guts to stand in front of tanks, I don't think he can be completely silenced about what he has done over the last 17 years, if he is a free person. But if he is in detention, given [that] we understand how powerful this symbolic act is, I'm pessimistic about what this brutal regime [would have done] to him these 17 years. I'm pessimistic about if he is still alive.
... I have made investigations, and I have met people who falsely claim that they were [he]. ... But somehow the power of that story is not getting weaker because of the time. Because we don't know who he is, it's actually getting stronger…..
Just look how hard the Chinese authorities are trying to wipe out this memory. Temporarily they had some success among the Chinese younger generation, among the certain part they can control, but they're trying to make people completely forget what happened, completely forget if ever there [was] a Chinese man [who stood] in front of tanks. But in the long run they are on the losing side. This memory prevails. The pictures are everywhere -- through the Internet, through the satellite TV's. The Chinese have known about their heroes, and this hero will inspire the Chinese again in the future battle for freedom. …
Researcher for Human Rights Watch
[Why is the Tank Man still important today? Is it as a symbol?]
Yes. In a sense, it could have been anyone who went up there and played this almost mythic, symbolic role of simply saying no to the PLA. … It could have been anyone, but he did it. He did this extraordinary heroic act of standing in front of a column of tanks, no one around him. He was all on his own with his shopping bag in his hand. He stood there and wouldn't move. He climbed on top of the tank, banged on the lid, said, "Get out of my city. … You're not wanted here." He spoke for the Beijing people, who had fought this magnificent campaign of civic, peaceful resistance for weeks against all the odds.
From the footage we have and the pictures we have, he didn't look at all like a student. He looked like someone on his way to work or who had just knocked off and was on his way home, doing the shopping on the way home. In a sense, he stood for the ordinary people. The symbolism of what he did was overwhelmingly clear. … Before June Fourth you had millions of people all over China in the cities, in the streets, peacefully demanding more rights, democracy, press freedom, [an] end to corruption. After June Fourth, what did you have? You had one man, one sacrificial figure almost, who took it on himself to speak for everyone else who had been silenced by that time.
What does it say about China, the system, that we don't have a clue about who he is?
Oh, it speaks volumes about the system. … This lies at the heart of the Communist enterprise in China: control of knowledge; control of information; the official version of what happened, which must be endlessly worked on by historians and hacks to get it just the right message to justify the Party's continued monopoly on power. The facts have to be bent so that the story can be totally rewritten. …
Most Chinese people have no idea that this incident even happened. It did not appear on Chinese television, needless to say. Foreign footage was censored. Pictures were cut out of any newspapers that came into the country that had this figure of the man in front of the tanks. … They're robbed of their own history, of their own political symbolism as a people, by acts like this, and it's because of the obsessive, seamless control of information that the Communist Party has evolved over the decades. …
The first article claiming to identify him appeared in the Sunday Express giving him the name Wang Wei Lin. Later, the London Evening Standard said that it had hard evidence that he'd been executed. You were very skeptical of these reports. Why?
… I followed the paper trail of the reports that appeared in the Western press, naming him as Wang Wei Lin, the reports that he'd been executed. … So I talked to one of the journalists from Britain who had published that story naming him and saying he had been executed. … And by the end of the interview, I had a very clear sense that actually this man's sources were not reliable. … I just concluded at the end of that investigation that we actually had no idea of … what his real name was, and we had even less idea of what had happened to him. He'd simply disappeared. … He may have been executed, but those reports were not based on information that I thought stood up to examination. So we were left with just a huge question mark over that man. …
But we know what he stood for.
We know what he stood for. … [H]e didn't need to have a name. He spoke for the masses, the many who'd been silenced on June Fourth. He was all of them, you know. He didn't need a name because the point he made, everyone got it. It will endure long after this regime has become history. …