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

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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 PBS.org, 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

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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