Tiananmen Square

We Are All the Children of Tiananmen's Tank Man

Thirty-one years ago, an unidentified man held off Chinese military tanks in Tiananmen Square. Protesters facing down state violence today have big shoes to fill.


Thirty-one years ago today, the Chinese government executed an unknown number of peaceful student protesters at and near Tiananmen Square—official estimates of the body count range from a few hundred to several thousand. The day after, as tanks attempted to leave, a single unidentified man wearing a white shirt, holding shopping bags, stood in front of the tanks in a now-iconic show of peaceful civil disobedience. As the tanks attempted to pass around him, he kept repositioning himself, undeterred.

Many have theorized about who he is and where he disappeared to post-standoff. Some claim he was executed by Chinese government forces shortly thereafter, others say he lives in obscurity somewhere in the mainland, and still others believe he is an archaeologist at a museum in Taiwan. But Tank Man's choice to boldly counter violence with the risk of self-sacrifice has been embedded in public memory ever since, a symbol of resistance to an authoritarian government that used repugnant force to pacify peaceful protesters. The image is perhaps made even more iconic by the Chinese government's patently absurd addendum that they showed great restraint by choosing not to mow Tank Man down.

Over the past week, many images have emerged from the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed man who died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. In some of those protests, concerned citizens peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights and the cops unobtrusively let them. In others, the protests remain peaceful but the police release tear gas and conduct "shows of force" with military helicopters, sending debris flying into the faces of those who have gathered. In still others, militants have set fire to cop cars and buildings and looters have plundered stores.

Tank Man taught us that the most lasting anti-authoritarian images do not revolve around rebels wielding brute force. They involve everyday people taking on extraordinary personal risk; their calm bravery makes shows of state power look even more unwarranted, extreme, and horrifying.

Last week in Austin, for example, a black man in a blue shirt received pepper spray to the face from a line of heavily-armored cops:

In Long Beach, California, protesters held their hands up, showing they were unarmed, opposite a line of cops:

In Washington, D.C., men stared down lines of officers:

Others sat crosslegged, hands raised:

In Fort Lauderdale, a cop told off her colleague after he used unwarranted force against a protester:

In images like these, the forces of state power don't look as strong as they think. Their weapons and helmets and goggles and shields make their opponents look brave and startlingly normal; these are average men and women clothed in t-shirts and shorts, not riot gear, willing to risk their safety to ensure that Americans are not executed for minor or nonexistent crimes.

These brave displays aren't as iconic in Tank Man—not yet, anyway. And even at its most repressive, the American police apparatus is nowhere near as bad as the totalitarian regime that cracked down in Tiananmen Square. But 31 years ago or today, these images of regular people standing up to state force are powerful. And 31 years ago or today, images of the uniformed hordes arrayed against them only embolden those who seek justice.

NEXT: The Lancet's Hydroxychloroquine Study Is Retracted by Its Authors

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. You too thought it was a bit offensive that comparing the protest and eventual deaths and tragedy that was the Massacre in Tiananmen Square, to what’s happened nationwide with protests of George Floyd’s death?

      I don’t know how you can find common ground with someone who could find the two situations comparable. It’s insane.

  1. Blacks never talk about ending drug prohibition even though that would go the furthest to fix their community.

    1. Actually, if you someone looking up, white cities with 75% white people have the biggest drug problems. At least 3 out of top 5. A libertarian would try and attempt to educate themselves before saying blatantly ignorant things.

      1. None of what you wrote refutes what IceTrey wrote.

    2. Most drugs aren’t victimless crimes. The destruction wrought to families as well as the question of how these addicts feed their addiction are never interrogated by libertarian imbeciles who think the collective well being of a society doesn’t matter.

  2. https://youtu.be/3n5_D59lSjc

    Yeah. Local residents and business owners might see things differently. Especially the couple who got bludgeoned with a 2×4. This site is reaching new lows.

  3. It is better to light one looter than curse the darkness.

    1. Finally a bright spot of news

  4. The protesters are braver than any commentator here.

    Compare those who speak up to those who advocate more Market violence. These protestors didn’t need guns, only those who want to impose or threaten do.

    1. You mean like the market violence in Fats link above moron?

      1. Wow, I think you need a dictionary. If you are confused on how the term market is used around here, I can’t help you. But hey, hope your ignorance helps you sleep.

  5. Violence is the core problem. We simply need to practice more kindness in everything we do.

  6. Some commenters the other day floated the great idea of exchanging our freedom hating communists for the Hong Kongers who want more freedom. We can call it a protester exchange program.

  7. “We Are All the Children of Tiananmen’s Tank Man”

    nah i dont eat bats but ty

  8. Uh oh George Floyd, the Gentle Giant, tested positive for covid-19.

    1. That is relevant to what?

  9. I do not recall widespread violent rioting and looting associated with the Tiananmen Square protests.

    Maybe making a direct comparison is an intellectually vacuous false equivalency.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.