Saturday, June 04, 2022

The Tank Man, on the Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

As a result of the CCP’s draconian “National Security” Law, Hong Kong residents can no longer safely watch this Frontline documentary, commemorate the events it chronicles, or search on-line for the image it focuses on. We must remember for them. In fact, the image of the lone man standing in front of a column of tanks has become an iconic image of courageous defiance in the face of overwhelming state oppression. Writer-producer-director Antony Thomas investigates who he was and how the crackdown on the 1989 democracy protests drove him to do what he did in Frontline: The Tank Man, which is available on-line.

Unlike other vital Tiananmen Massacre documentaries (like
Tiananmen: The People vs.The Party and Moving the Mountain), Tank Man largely focuses on events outside the Square, but that rather makes sense, considering the Tank Man was blocking tanks on the Boulevard leading out of the Square. In fact, one of the eye-opening aspects of Thomas’s report is the carnage that resulted when the PLA strafed apartment buildings around Muxidi Bridge with combat-grade ammunition.

Consequently, Thomas’s talking heads suggest the majority of killings happened at barricades set up by average working-class citizens to protect the students in the Square. Yet, the most senseless murders were those of groups of parents mowed down by the PLA, who had come to the Square desperate to find their children.

Thomas and company fully explain the circumstances surrounding the historic film of Tank Man and how determined the state security apparatus was to prevent it airing in the international media. They also establish how thoroughly blocked all images of the protests are on the Chinese internet—as well as the culpability of Western tech firms like Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo in aiding and abetting the CCP’s censorship.

Thomas also spends a good deal of time examining the vast economic disparities between the urban super-rich and the rural underclass. They make valid points regarding the inequality of China’s economic growth, which has been used to justify the Party’s ironclad grip on power post-Massacre, but it sort of distracts from sheer courage and abject horror of the events of 1989.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about
Tank Man is that it was produced before Xi-Who-Must-be-Obeyed assumed absolute power. Since then, the CCP has launched a genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs and dismantled personal freedoms in Hong Kong. Yet, they remain threatened by the image of Tank Man.

Even though reports surfaced claiming he was Wang Weilin, most of the journalists in
Tank Man are unconvinced. That mystery has become part of his mystique, having an inspired at least one notable short film, the play Chimerica, and its subsequent television adaptation. Perhaps most importantly, the late, great Bruce Herschensohn credits Tank Man with inspiring the revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe, which is an uplifting legacy (and at least one positive note in the doc). Whoever he was, his actions spoke for the city of Beijing. The CCP wants you to forget him, so consider watching the highly recommended Frontline: Tank Man today.