Remembering the Tiananmen Square Crackdown, and the “Tank Man”

A man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener) (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

June 4, 2020

On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — part of a bloody government crackdown on dissent that killed unknown numbers of unarmed pro-democracy protesters and bystanders throughout the city.

The army seemed in complete control. But the next day, something remarkable happened.

In an act that would reverberate around the world, a solitary man stood his ground before a column of advancing tanks on Chang’an Boulevard, which runs directly into Tiananmen Square.

His identity and his ultimate fate remain a mystery — but his lonely act of defiance, captured by photographers watching nearby, became an icon of the fight for freedom around the globe.

FRONTLINE investigated this extraordinary confrontation, and China’s attempts to erase it from history, in the 2006 documentary The Tank Man. On the anniversary of Tiananmen, revisit this landmark documentary, which is available to stream on, the PBS Video App and on YouTube:

This year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown comes at a particularly volatile time, as the Chinese government tightens its grip on Hong Kong, which last year saw the largest pro-democracy protests on Chinese territory since Tiananmen Square.

FRONTLINE chronicled those protests and the police response earlier this year in Battle for Hong Kong, which went inside the movement against growing Chinese control of the semi-autonomous territory.

One of the young protesters in the documentary, identified as “Vincent,” grew up in mainland China, where the press and internet are heavily censored. He didn’t learn about the Tiananmen Square crackdown until he moved to Hong Kong as a teenager.

“I just watched the Tiananmen Square video. I don’t have the heart to watch further,” he says in the documentary. “The government used brutal violence to massacre the protesters. The protesters fought for democracy because they loved their country and wanted to have a better China.”

Stream the full film now:

This year, Hong Kong’s annual June 4 vigil marking the Tiananmen Square massacre was forbidden for the first time, with authorities pointing to coronavirus risks. Meanwhile, the Chinese government recently passed a bill that would allow Beijing to sidestep Hong Kong’s governing body in implementing changes to its legal system and security enforcement. Those changes are expected to be implemented soon — a move that many fear signals the end of Hong Kong’s semi-independence and the civil liberties its people are currently afforded.

For more on Tiananmen, the “tank man,” and China’s handling of dissent, explore our related reporting:

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Taking Office in a Time of Crisis: 16 Documentaries on Key Issues Biden Inherits
These 16 FRONTLINE documentaries offer context on some of the biggest challenges the new administration faces.
January 19, 2021
Nine Former Michigan Officials, Including Ex-Gov. Rick Snyder, Charged in Flint Water Crisis
More than six years after residents learned that they had been exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water and a deadly disease outbreak, top leadership in the state and city at the time have been indicted on criminal charges in connection with their role in the crisis.
January 14, 2021
Michigan Ex-Gov. Rick Snyder Charged in Flint Water Crisis
Michigan’s former governor Rick Snyder was charged Wednesday with willful neglect of duty for his role in the deadly Flint water crisis that poisoned residents and is still overshadowing the city.
January 13, 2021
Judge Rules U.S. Indian Health Service Must Disclose Sex-Abuse Report
The report was commissioned after a WSJ-FRONTLINE investigation revealed the agency’s failure to protect patients from a pedophile doctor.
January 13, 2021