On the morning of June 5, 1989, an Associated Press photographer named Jeff Widener was at the right place at the right time, which happened to be a balcony of a Beijing Hotel. As he was taking photographs, a column of tanks began rolling out of the plaza.
100photos.time describes what happened next: “Widener lined up his lens just as a man carrying shopping bags stepped in front of the war machines, waving his arms and refusing to move. The tanks tried to go around the man, but he stepped back into their path, climbing atop one briefly. Widener assumed the man would be killed, but the tanks held their fire. Eventually, the man moved away.”
This picture of the “Tank Man” that showed the “act of defiance” came to become one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of that event, and the Chinese regime continues to view the Tiananmen protests as a taboo subject. “June 4,” as the movement is commonly known, remains missing in China’s official history, thus making this event a lesser known one among the current youth in China.
According to declassified information leaked by an anonymous high-level source in the Chinese State Council, some 10,454 people were killed by Chinese soldiers during the massacre. This figure is far greater than the Chinese regime’s “official” fatality count of 200. On June 4, 1989, students were gunned down in droves and “mown down” by tanks. “APCs then ran over bodies time and time again to make ‘pie’ and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains,” read part of the statement, which was obtained by Alan Donald, Britain’s ambassador to China in 1989. Despite this, “Tank Man” still made his stand on June 5.
To commemorate the Tank Man, in 2009 several photos and videos appeared online, around the “June 4” date, showing people from around the world using the “Tank Man” pose in their public memorials. Photographed events were held in Germany, Australia, Belgium, Mexico, the United States, Singapore, and the United Kingdom according to City Sharing.
However, more recently, Australian-Chinese artist and cartoonist Badiucao performed an art called “One TankMan” by donning the Tank Man outfit with shopping bags in hands at Adelaide on June 4, 2016, as per his piece on China Change.
A couple of years later, in an attempt to continue to bypass China’s censors, Badiucao—who disguises himself out of fear of reprisals from the Chinese regime—began a movement on social media called #Tankmen2018. He encouraged the public to set up their own performances. He suggested that performers stand on a chair posing as “Tank Man” and ask a friend to take photos and videos or live stream the performance.
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Performers were also asked to wear a white shirt, black trousers, and black shoes, carrying two Badiucao-designed bags displaying images of “Peppa Pig” and “Winnie the Pooh,” which have been the subject of censorship in China.
It was a global campaign to remember the Tiananmen massacre, calling on people all over the world to recreate the “Tank Man” image in their memorials. Badiucao advised people living in mainland China not to perform the Tank Man in public because commemorations there are still forbidden.
— Barbarian Soul (@CanadaGoose1124) June 3, 2018
“After all these years, we still need to bypass the censorship through various means to talk about this matter,” Badiucao told ABC’s The World program.
“Tank Man is very relevant today and people should see it. Society has not changed much since the massacre for the oppression has never stopped,” he told The Guardian.
— Jian Alan Huang (@hnjhj) June 3, 2018
Alluding to the Chinese regime’s acts, Badiucao told the ABC, “Today, China is still the same regime that will oppress human rights like what they did in 1989.”
Within China, all memory of June 4 is being tightly controlled. Badiucao, just like the many others around the world, feels it is important to remember what happened on June 4—by remembering history, we can have hope for positive changes for China.
“What I want most from this performance is that people start to realize how powerful it can be when we use new and creative ways to celebrate and memorize the spirit of 1989. And essentially that is how we can actually preserve this memory and keep the young[er] generation feel relevant to it,” Badiucao said to the HKFP.
Zhou Fengsuo, a Chinese activist who was a student leader during the 1989 protests, too posted photos of himself posing as Tank Man in Washington, D.C., last year.
— 周锋锁 Fengsuo Zhou (@ZhouFengSuo) June 3, 2018
To mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a film called “China’s Artful Dissident” by award-winning filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe will debut on ABC Australia on June 4. The hour-long film covers the career of the exiled Chinese cartoonist and street-artist Badiucao. This comes in six months after his first exhibit in Hong Kong was canceled amid threats from Chinese authorities as per the HKFP.
However, it’s not just that the date “June 4” on the internet is heavily censored in China, but the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of over 100 families of democracy protesters killed by the Chinese military on June 4, 1989, are being harassed every year and prevented from commemorating their loses publicly. The New York Times, which attempted to conduct a phone interview with one of the mothers in 2016, was told, “I’m sorry, I cannot be interviewed,” Ding Zilin, a founder of Tiananmen Mothers, said.
— 高瑜 (@gaoyu200812) May 30, 2016
Ding, a then-79-year-old former philosophy professor, did not detail why she could not be interviewed. But before hanging up, she added, “There are people watching and checking at my door.”
In a translated excerpt from a statement sent to HRIC (Human Rights in China) in 2016, the Tiananmen Mothers said,
“Evidence proves that after the suppression of June Fourth the whole country was plagued with corruption from top to bottom, resulting in the current challenges in fighting corruption.
A government that unscrupulously slaughters its own fellow citizens, a government that does not know how to cherish its own fellow citizens, and a government that forgets, conceals, and covers up the truth of historical suffering has no future—it is a government that is continuing to commit crimes!
People need to live with dignity and die with dignity.”
Badiucao also thinks that by exposing the truth of China’s past, the young generation might gain a “sense of responsibility, and confidence that an individual can make a change.”
Twitter has been blocked in China along with Facebook and Google. Hopefully, young Chinese people will learn how to circumvent the Great Firewall, travel out of the country, or become students studying overseas and find out about what really happened on June 4, 1989.
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Author: Margery Dunn