Tiananmen Square: What happened to Tank Man?

What became of the unknown rebel who defied a column of tanks?

Today marks the 25 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that saw China’s People's Liberation Army gun down hundreds of civilians in a brutal crackdown on protests against government corruption, lack of transparency and freedom of speech.

The violent military response and the scale of bloodshed that ensued was followed by a further clampdown that saw the widespread arrests of protesters, the expulsion of foreign journalists and the censorship of media coverage of the event, including banning the image of a man stood in front of a column tanks, dressed in a white shirt and holding a shopping bag.

The image of Tank Man quickly became a powerful symbol of both the bloody events of 4 June 1989 and of non-violent resistance, but the identity of the ‘unknown rebel’ and his fate remains unknown. Many people in China are still unaware of his existence and only a handful of photographers were able to record the event without having to destroy their materials.

Below are some of the theories surrounding the mystery of the man captured in such an iconic picture.

He was a student

The Sunday Express went on to identify him as 19-year-old student Wang Weilin and quoted his friends as saying they feared he had been put to death. However, then General Secretary Jiang Zemin denied having nay knowledge of his arrest or even of the name.

He was pulled away to safety

Witnesses recall the man climbing up onto the first tank in the column and speaking to the person inside. Jan Wong, the former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent, remembered seeing tanks repeatedly attempting to drive around him, before switching off their motors. The man then climbed into the tank.

She told Frontline: “After a while the young man jumps down and the tank turns on the motor and the young man blocks him again. […] I started to cry because I had seen so much shooting and so many people dying that I was sure this man would get crushed.

“But he didn't. … I think it was two people from the sidelines ran to him and grabbed him - not in a harsh way, almost in a protective way. I think that the people who took the Tank Man away were concerned people.”

But other accounts contradict this however, with many claiming he was pulled away by security agents and arrested.

Soldiers in armoured vehicles fired on the public in Tiananmen Square Soldiers in armoured vehicles fired on the public in Tiananmen Square

He is still alive

American TV journalist Barbara Walters confronted Jiang a year after the crackdown with a photo of Tank Man and the question: “Do you have any idea what happened to this young man?” A flustered Jiang reportedly stressed that Tank Man had not been executed by the Government or run over. He highlighted the fact that the tanks in the picture were still and had not attempted to drive at him as indicative of his fate, and said: "The people in the tanks didn't want to run over the people standing in the way.

“I think ...never killed”.

Others claim police were never able to locate the man after he was pulled away from the crowd and back into the tanks. One government official was quoted as saying, "We can’t find him. We got his name from journalists. We have checked through computers but can’t find him among the dead or among those in prison."

He escaped mainland China

A report cited a professor in Hong Kong who claimed Tank Man was an archaeologist and his friend who had come from Changsha to Beijing to join the protests. The professor claimed he escaped to Taiwan and was employed by the National Palace Museum but the museum allegedly denied this report.

The Yonhap news agency in South Korea also reported that he had escaped the massacre by fleeing to Taiwan.

He was executed

Bruce Herschensohn, a former deputy special assistant to former US President Richard Nixon, told the President Club in 1999 that Tank Man was executed 14 days later.

Others claim he was later put to death by a firing squad a few months after the protests. Many, however, remain hopeful Tank Man is still alive, and may have no idea of the intrigue his picture has created thanks to China's strict censorship of the image.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen