The Tank Man (also known as the Unknown Protester or Unknown Rebel) is the nickname given to an unidentified individual, presumed to be a Chinese man, who stood in front of a column of Type 59 tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989. On the previous day, the government of China cleared the square of protesting students after six weeks of standoff, in the process killing hundreds or even thousands of people mostly in other parts of Beijing.[1][2] As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank's attempted path around him, and forced the tanks to halt to avoid running him over. The incident was filmed and shared to a worldwide audience. Internationally, it is considered one of the most iconic images of all time.[3][4][5] Inside China, the image and the accompanying events are subject to censorship.[6][7]

"Tank Man"
"Tank Man" temporarily stops the advance of Type 59 tanks on June 5, 1989, in Beijing. This photograph (one of six similar versions) was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press.
NationalityChinese (presumed)
Other names
  • Unknown Protester
  • Unknown Rebel
  • Wang Weilin (posited)
Known forIconic photo of him obstructing tanks during the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre

There is no reliable information about the identity or fate of Tank Man; the story of what happened to the tank crew is also unknown.[8] At least one witness has stated that Tank Man was not the only person to have blocked the tanks during the protest.[10]



At the northeast edge of Tiananmen Square, along Chang'an Avenue, shortly after noon on June 5, 1989, the day after the Chinese government's violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protests, "Tank Man" stood in the middle of the wide avenue, directly in the path of a column of approaching Type 59 tanks.[11][12][13] Stuart Franklin, who was on assignment for Time magazine, told The New York Times: "At some point, shots were fired and the tanks carried on down the road toward us, leaving Tiananmen Square behind, until blocked by a lone protester."[3] He wore a white shirt and black trousers, and he held two shopping bags.[14] As the tanks came to a stop, the man gestured at them with one of the bags. In response, the lead tank attempted to drive around the man, but the man repeatedly stepped into the path of the tank in a show of nonviolent action.[15] After repeatedly attempting to go around, the lead tank stopped its engines, and the armored vehicles behind it followed suit. There was a short pause with the man and the tanks having reached a quiet, still impasse.

Having successfully brought the column to a halt, the man climbed onto the hull of the buttoned-up lead tank and, after briefly stopping at the driver's hatch, appeared in video footage of the incident to call into various ports in the tank's turret. He then climbed atop the turret and seemed to have a short conversation with a crew member at the gunner's hatch. After ending the conversation, the man descended from the tank. The tank commander briefly emerged from his hatch, and the tanks restarted their engines, ready to continue on. At that point, the man, who was still standing within a meter (yard) or two from the side of the lead tank, leapt in front of the vehicle once again and quickly re-established the man–tank standoff.

Video footage shows two figures in blue pulling the man away and disappearing with him into a nearby crowd; the tanks continued on their way.[15] Eyewitnesses are unsure who pulled him aside. Charlie Cole, who was there for Newsweek, claimed it was the Chinese government agents,[16] while Jan Wong, who was there for The Globe and Mail, thought that the men who pulled him away were concerned bystanders.[17]

Identity and disappearance


Little is publicly known of the man's identity or that of the commander of the lead tank. Shortly after the incident, London newspaper Sunday Express named him as "Wang Weilin" (王维林), a 19-year-old student[18] who was later charged with "political hooliganism" and "attempting to subvert members of the People's Liberation Army."[19] This claim has been rejected by internal Chinese Communist Party documents, which reported that they could not find the man, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights.[20] One party member 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."[20] Numerous theories have sprung up as to the man's identity and current whereabouts.[21]

There are several conflicting stories about what happened to him after the demonstration. In a speech to the President's Club in 1999, Bruce Herschensohn, former deputy special assistant to US President Richard Nixon, alleged that he was executed 14 days later; other sources alleged he was executed by firing squad a few months after the Tiananmen Square protests.[15] In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that she believes from her interactions with the government press that they have "no idea who he was either" and that he is still alive somewhere on the mainland. Another theory is that he escaped to Taiwan and remains employed there as an archaeologist in the National Palace Museum. This was first reported by the Yonhap news agency in South Korea.[22]

The Chinese government has made few statements about the incident or the people involved. The government denounced him as a "scoundrel" once on state television, but it was never shown publicly again.[23][24] In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, then-General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin was asked what became of the man. Jiang first stated (through an interpreter), "I can't confirm whether this young man you mentioned was arrested or not", and then replied in English, "I think [that he was] never killed."[23] The government also argued that the incident evidenced the "humanity" of the country's military.[25]

In a 2000 interview with Mike Wallace, Jiang said, "He was never arrested." He then stated, "I don't know where he is now." He also emphasized that the tank stopped and did not run the young man over.[26]


The intersection in 2014, viewed from a different angle

A PBS interview of six experts observed that the memory of the Tiananmen Square protests appears to have faded in China, especially among younger Chinese people, due to government censorship.[27] Images of the protest on the Internet have been censored in China.[20] When undergraduate students at Beijing University, which was at the center of the incident, were shown copies of the photograph 16 years later, they were "genuinely mystified".[28] One of the students said that the image was "artwork".

It has been suggested that the "Unknown Rebel", if still alive, would never have made himself known as he may have been unaware of his international recognition due to the Chinese media suppression of events relating to the government protests.[20][failed verification]

At and after the events in the square, the local public security bureau treated members of the international press roughly, confiscating and destroying all the film they could find, and forced the signing of confessions to offenses such as photography during martial law, punishable by long imprisonment.[16]

On August 20, 2020, a trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War showed footage of Tank Man. On video platforms in China like Bilibili, the segment of the trailer was replaced with a black screen. The next day, Activision Blizzard released a shorter version of the trailer worldwide that did not include the scene.[29][30]

On June 4, 2021, the 32nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, searches for the Tank Man image and videos were censored by Microsoft's Bing search engine worldwide. Hours after Microsoft acknowledged the issue, the search returned only pictures of tanks elsewhere in the world. Search engines that license results from Microsoft such as DuckDuckGo and Yahoo faced similar issues. Microsoft said the issue was "due to an accidental human error."[31][32][33][34][35] The director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said the idea that it was an inadvertent error is "hard to believe". David Greene, Civil Liberties Director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that content moderation was impossible to do perfectly and "egregious mistakes are made all the time", but he further elaborated that "At worst, this was purposeful suppression at the request of a powerful state."[36][37]

Photographic versions


Five photographers managed to capture the event on film that was later confiscated by the PSB.[3] On June 4, 2009, the fifth photographer released an image of the scene taken from ground level.[38]

The widest coverage of the event and one of the best-known photographs of the event appearing in both Time and Life magazines, was documented by Stuart Franklin. He was on the same balcony as Charlie Cole, and his roll of film was smuggled out of the country by a French student, concealed in a box of tea.[3]

The most-used photograph of the event was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth-floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about one-half mile (800 m) away from the scene. The image was taken using a Nikon FE2 camera through a Nikkor 400mm 5.6 ED-IF lens and TC-301 teleconverter.[39] American exchange student Kirk Martsen unexpectedly met Widener in the hotel lobby, and upon request he allowed Widener to take photos from his hotel room.[40] Circumstances were against the photographer who recalled that the picture was almost not taken.[41] Widener was injured, suffering from the flu and running out of film. Martsen, the college student, hastily obtained a roll of Fuji 100 ASA color negative film, allowing Widener to make the shot. Martsen then smuggled the film out of the hotel, and delivered it to the Beijing Associated Press office.[3] Though he was concerned that his shots were no good, his image was syndicated to many newspapers around the world[3] and was said to have appeared on the front page of all European papers.[3] He was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize but did not win. Nevertheless, his photograph has widely been known as one of the most iconic photographs of all time.[3][4][5]

Wider shot by Stuart Franklin showing a column of tanks approaching Tank Man, who is shown near the lower-left corner.

Charlie Cole, working for Newsweek and on the same balcony as Stuart Franklin, hid his roll of film containing Tank Man in a Beijing Hotel toilet, sacrificing an unused roll of film and undeveloped images of wounded protesters after the PSB raided his room, destroyed the two aforementioned rolls of film and forced him to sign a confession to photography during martial law, an imprisonable offence. Cole was able to retrieve the roll and have it sent to Newsweek.[3] He was awarded the 1990 World Press Photo of the Year[42] and the picture was featured in Life's "100 Photographs That Changed the World" in 2003.

On June 4, 2009, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the protests, Associated Press reporter Terril Jones revealed a photo he had taken showing the Tank Man from ground level, a different angle from all of the other known photos of the Tank Man. Jones wrote that he was not aware of what he had captured until a month later when printing his photos.[43]

Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters took several shots from room 1111 of the Beijing Hotel,[44] but only the shot of Tank Man climbing the tank was chosen.[3] It was not until several hours later that the photo of the man standing in front of the tank was finally chosen. When the staff noticed Widener's work, they re-checked Tsang's negative to see if it was of the same moment as Widener's. On March 20, 2013, in an interview by the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association (HKPPA), Tsang told the story and added further detail. He told HKPPA that on the night of June 3, 1989, he was beaten by students while taking photos and was bleeding. A foreign photographer accompanying him suddenly said, "I am not gonna die for your country", and left. Tsang returned to the hotel. When he decided to go out again, the public security stopped him, so he stayed in his room, stood next to the window and eventually witnessed the Tank Man and took several shots of the event.[44]

In addition to the photography, video footage of the scene was recorded and transmitted across the globe. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) cameraman Willie Phua, Cable News Network (CNN) cameraman Jonathan Schaer and National Broadcasting Company (NBC) cameraman Tony Wasserman appear to be the only television cameramen who captured the scene.[45][46][47] ABC correspondents Max Uechtritz and Peter Cave were the journalists reporting from the balcony.[48]



In April 1998, Time included the "Unknown Rebel" in a feature titled "Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century".[15] In November 2016, Time included the photograph by Jeff Widener in "Time 100: The Most Influential Images of All Time".[49]

In media


In the 1999 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Stand and Be Counted", from the album Looking Forward, David Crosby sings of his gratitude to Tank Man, whose photograph he had framed and mounted.[50]

A similar scene is depicted in the music video for "Only One" (2003) by the American rock band Yellowcard as well as "Club Foot" (2004) by the English rock band Kasabian.[51]

A fictionalized version of the fates of both the Tank Man and a soldier in the tank is told in Lucy Kirkwood's 2013 play Chimerica, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre from May 20, 2013, to July 6, 2013.[52]

On June 4, 2013, Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, blocked terms whose English translations are "today", "tonight", "June 4", and "big yellow duck". If these were searched for, a message appeared stating that, in accordance with relevant laws, statutes, and policies, the results of the search could not be shown. The censorship occurred because a photoshopped version of Tank Man, in which rubber ducks replaced the tanks, had been circulating around Twitter[53]—a reference to Florentijn Hofman's Rubber Duck sculpture, which at that time was floating in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour.[54]

In April 2019, Leica Camera released an advert depicting photographers in intense political climates, including 1989 China. The five-minute short ends with a photographer shooting from a hotel window with the Tank Man image reflected in his lens despite the fact that the original photograph was taken with a Nikon camera.[55] Following censorship of the Leica brand on Sina Weibo, Leica revoked the advert and sought to distance themselves from it.[56]

The animated series The Amazing World of Gumball referenced the moment in the episode "The Fraud", in which the character Mr. Small tries to halt Principal Nigel Brown by standing in front of him as a symbolic gesture of protest. Small holds bags while Brown leaves tank treads as he walks forward.

See also



  1. ^ Mathews, Jay. "The Myth of Tiananmen". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved June 5, 2024.
  2. ^ Roth, Richard (June 4, 2009). "There Was No "Tiananmen Square Massacre" - CBS News". Retrieved June 5, 2024.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Witty, Patrick (June 3, 2009). "Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b Pitts, Joe. "Tiananmen Anniversary" 2009 Congressional Record, Vol. 155, Page H6079 (June 3, 2009)
  5. ^ a b Corless, Kieron (May 24, 2006). "Time In – Plugged In – Tank Man". Time Out.
  6. ^ Hernández, Javier C. (June 3, 2019). "30 Years After Tiananmen, 'Tank Man' Remains an Icon and a Mystery". The New York Times.
  7. ^ Ables, Kelsey (August 7, 2019). "The forbidden images of the Chinese internet". CNN. Artsy. Archived from the original on December 17, 2022. Retrieved December 17, 2022.
  8. ^ "Photographer Jeff Widener". BBC interview (Video ed.). 2014. Archived from the original on October 30, 2021.
  9. ^ "Shao Jiang interview". Amnesty International (Video posted for 25th anniversary ed.). Archived from the original on October 30, 2021. Retrieved May 28, 2014. Those interviewed include photographer Stuart Franklin with Magnum for TIME, who was on the 5th floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel.
  10. ^ Shao Jiang, who was a student leader, said: "I witnessed a lot of the people standing up, blocking the tanks."[9]
  11. ^ Makinen, Julie (June 4, 2014). "Tiananmen Square mystery: Who was 'Tank Man'?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
  12. ^ Ai, Weiwei (June 4, 2019). "The west is complicit in the 30-year cover-up of Tiananmen". The Guardian – Australia edition.
  13. ^ Srinivasan, Ranjani (May 16, 2022). "Daily Quiz - On protest movements". The Hindu. Retrieved November 2, 2022.
  14. ^ Langely, Andrew (2009). Tiananmen Square: Massacre Crushes China's Democracy Movement. Compass Point Books. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-7565-4101-9.
  15. ^ a b c d Iyer, Pico (April 13, 1998). "The Unknown Rebel". Time. Retrieved August 10, 2014.
  16. ^ a b "Picture Power:Tiananmen Standoff". BBC News. Retrieved October 7, 2005.
  17. ^ Jan, Wong. "Jan Wong, August 1988 - August 1994". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved July 9, 2023.
  18. ^ "Man who defied tanks may be dead". Los Angeles Times. June 3, 1990.
  19. ^ Munro, Robin; Spiegel, Mickey (1994). Detained in China and Tibet: a directory of political and religious prisoners. Asia Watch Committee. pp. 149–150. ISBN 978-1-56432-105-3.
  20. ^ a b c d Macartney, Jane (May 30, 2009). "Identity of Tank Man of Tiananmen Square remains a mystery". The Times. London. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011.
  21. ^ "Wang Weilin by tank file". Apple Daily (in Chinese). June 2, 2006. p. A1. Archived from the original on February 21, 2009.
  22. ^ Saul, Heather (June 4, 2014). "Tiananmen Square 25th anniversary: What happened to Tank Man?". The Independent. Archived from the original on May 26, 2022. Retrieved December 11, 2017.
  23. ^ a b "The Tank Man transcript". Frontline. PBS. April 11, 2006. Retrieved June 30, 2008.
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  25. ^ Higgins, Andrew (January 20, 2012). "Tycoon prods Taiwan closer to China". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 31, 2012.
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  28. ^ "The Tank Man: Interview: Jan Wong". Frontline. PBS. April 11, 2006. Retrieved August 12, 2010.
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  30. ^ Perez, Matt. "New Call Of Duty Trailer Censored In China Over Tiananmen Square Footage". Forbes.
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  32. ^ Campbell, Ian Carlos (June 4, 2021). "Microsoft says Bing's 'Tank Man' censorship was a human error". The Verge. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  33. ^ "Microsoft says error led to no matching Bing images for Tiananmen 'tank man'". Reuters. June 4, 2021.
  34. ^ "Microsoft blocks Bing from showing image results for Tiananmen 'tank man'". the Guardian. June 5, 2021.
  35. ^ "Bing Censors Image Search for 'Tank Man' Even in US". VICE.
  36. ^ Tilley, Aaron (June 4, 2021). "Microsoft's Bing Temporarily Blocked Searches of Tiananmen Square 'Tank Man' Image". Wall Street Journal.
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  38. ^ Witty, Patrick (June 4, 2009). "Behind the Scenes: A New Angle on History". The New York Times.
  39. ^ Alfano, Sean (June 4, 2009). "'Tank Man': The Picture That Almost Wasn't". CBS News.
  40. ^ Chinoy, Mike; Yeung, Jessie (June 3, 2024). "The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo". CNN. Retrieved June 5, 2024. I walked up to him and whispered, 'I'm from Associated Press, can you let me up to your room?' He picked up on it right away and said, 'Sure.' That young man was Kirk Martsen – an American exchange student who snuck Widener into his sixth-floor hotel room.
  41. ^ Beaumont, Peter (May 12, 2019). "Thirty years on, the Tiananmen Square image that shocked the world". The Guardian – Australian edition.
  42. ^ "1990 Photo Contest, World Press Photo of the Year, Charlie Cole". World Press Photo.
  43. ^ Jones, Terril (2009). "Tank Man". Pomona College Magazine. 41 (1). Archived from the original on March 6, 2010.
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  51. ^ Kasabian (April 14, 2014). "Club Foot feat. Dinara Drukarova". Vimeo.
  52. ^ Hitchings, Henry (May 29, 2013). "Chimerica, Almeida Theatre – theatre review". London Evening Standard. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
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  54. ^ Fisher, Max (June 4, 2013). "Fool's Errand: Why China Censors Rubber Duckies On Tiananmen Anniversary". The Washington Post.
  55. ^ Zhang, Michael (April 29, 2019). "Sorry, Leica: 'Tank Man' was Shot on Nikon". PetaPixel.
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Further reading

  • June Fourth: The True Story, Tian'anmen Papers/Zhongguo Liusi Zhenxiang Volumes 1–2 (Chinese edition), Zhang Liang, ISBN 962-8744-36-4.
  • Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong, Doubleday, 1997, trade paperback, 416 pages, ISBN 0-385-48232-9 (Contains, besides extensive autobiographical material, an eyewitness account of the Tiananmen crackdown and the basis for an estimate of the number of casualties.)
  • The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against their Own People—In their Own Words, Compiled by Zhang Liang, Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, with an afterword by Orville Schell, PublicAffairs, New York, 2001, hardback, 514 pages, ISBN 1-58648-012-X (An extensive review and synopsis of The Tiananmen Papers in the journal Foreign Affairs may be found at Review and synopsis in the journal Foreign Affairs.)

39°54′23.5″N 116°23′59.8″E / 39.906528°N 116.399944°E / 39.906528; 116.399944