Each country has at least one dark episode in their history, no matter the type of government or religion they profess. Even in the so-called democratic countries, we’ve seen the worst cases of repression and authoritarianism disguised as progress. These moments are not exclusive of communism or dictatorships. More than that, these respond to many factors, from an incapability to start a dialogue or the stubbornness of governments who won’t tolerate different ideas to the established ones, to a sense of unlimited power. Naturally, for some types of governments it's easier for these situations to happen, but then again, it has happened throughout history and in basically every single political context.
It’s hard to accept the fact that your government or even those before you have committed something inhumane, and yet there are many cases in which governments take full responsibility for these evens and work (as far as their understanding allows them) to “compensate” the damages, or at least give people some “closure,” but nothing will ever erase the pain of these episodes. However, there’s also the case of governments that pretend nothing happened or diminish the extent of their actions to keep control over the population. In their minds not talking about it is the same as if it never happened. But things don’t work that way, especially when you have the eyes of the world on you. That’s the case with the Tiananmen protests in China that took place in 1989, and which the government still deals with as a delicate and unspeakable subject.
It’s impressive how the Chinese government has concealed this massive moment in their history just by banning anything related to it. Despite their efforts to prevent international knowledge of their crimes, it was all known and spread throughout the world, and still they pretend it didn’t happen the way it did. Every single year the internet hides all the data regarding the Tiananmen massacre, up to the point that websites with numbers like 6 and 4 (the date of the massacre) are erased momentarily each year. Many families can’t mourn their loved ones who lost their lives fighting for their rights, and even today there are still people living in house arrest, labor camps, or haunted by the memories of that tragic day.
In the history of photography, there are few pictures that have become icons of determined moments in history. It’s not only because of the relevance and visual impact they have, but due to how they move us and open our eyes to the story behind them. One of this is the famous "Tank Man" taken precisely during this episode in the history of China. The image of a single man peacefully standing in front of a line of tanks to impede their movement is powerful because it represents the bravery of defending the people's rights regardless of the consequences. It’s just a tiny moment that exemplifies all that happened during that massacre, the brutal power of an authoritarian government against the pacific demonstrations of the unarmed people.
There are many versions of the famous Tank Man, also known as the Unknown Protester or Rebel, captured by different international press photographers. One of them was Stuart Franklin, a Time Magazine correspondent in Beijing when the student protests began. He’s explained how on July 4, 1989 the army arrived at the iconic Tiananmen square to clear it from the protesters who had set camp for days demanding the government freedom of speech, press, and the right to choose their own leaders and representatives. The Chinese Communist Government had refused to start a dialogue when the protests began. However, something they thought was just a small group of people (a version they still give), was only the spark that kindled a whole social movement. In many Chinese cities and squares, millions gathered for a common cause: basic human rights.
Let’s go back to Franklin. When the army arrived at the square, he and one of his international colleagues were sent to their hotels and confined there to prevent them from documenting the government’s repression, something they clearly didn’t do. He and many of the other correspondents kept looking through the balconies of their hotel. It was the next morning when the brave unknown hero stood in the middle of the street to stop the tanks from entering the square. As Franklin narrates, "I can’t but feel my heart stopping at how impressive and shocking it must’ve been to see this decisive man standing there, not caring for what could happen to him, making what he thought was the only thing that could actually help the movement." Many witnesses have told how they just closed their eyes expecting the tanks to run over him and continue their mission, but they didn’t. They stopped just as the man intended. The first tank tried to go around him, but he kept moving to block their way.
Here’s where the story gets distorted, since there are so many versions of what the witnesses have stated. Many say he climbed the tank, got inside, and then went back to his original position. Others claim that two men approached him and took him out of the way to hide him, so they wouldn’t arrest him or kill him. Yet, there are some who say that these people belonged to the army and actually arrested him and executed him some days after the massacre. As for his identity, it’s been said he was a nineteen-year-old student or an anthropologist who managed to flee to Taiwan, but nothing has been confirmed. Perhaps we’ll never know what’s the story behind this brave and mysterious hero, but the most likely hypothesis states that, in fact, the two men dragged him to hide him, that he’s alive, and that most likely he doesn’t even know his actions became a symbol of resistance. If this were true, did this man continue his life believing that his risky actions were futile? Especially because, in the end, the government managed to silence the voices of millions who were looking for a change and asking for basic human rights.
If you want to know the stories behind the most iconic images of history, take a look at these: