Today – June 5, 2014 – is the 25th anniversary of one of the most courageous acts the modern world has ever seen. I don’t use words like courageous loosely. I’ve known many men and women with REAL courage. People like Coast Guard pilots and rescue swimmers who fly out into weather that anyone with good sense would stay away from. Cops who run toward gunfire when everyone else is running away. Firefighters who run into burning buildings. These are all some of the most courageous people you and I are likely to meet. They train themselves – physically, intellectually and emotionally – to react with courage in situations that most people would find frightening.
Tankman was different. There is no indication that Tankman had any training. Tankman appeared to be a guy walking home with two grocery bags. I have no idea what was in the grocery bags. But, it was sometime around 25 years ago that the National Basketball Association was beginning to make inroads into the massive Chinese market. And, June 5, 1989, was a day before the N.B.A. finals – featuring the “Bay Boys” Detroit Pistons and the still-dominant Los Angeles Lakers – were set to begin. So, let’s imagine that Tankman was like many young men in the their 20’s and 30’s were in the United States at that time. He was headed home with a six pack of beer and a couple bags of snacks so he could watch the finals.
But, Tankman didn’t make it home. We’ll never know why. But, Tankman took a detour. A detour in history – a history that we cannot allow to be erased. On his way home, with his two grocery bags, Tankman walked into Tiananmen Square. Just the day before government troops had fired into crowds of peaceful civilians protesting for democratic reforms. Many people were killed. We will never know how many. The Chinese government doesn’t like to talk about it. The official Chinese government line is that 200 to 300 people were killed. If that’s the true toll then the Chinese troops are some of the worst shots in the history of repression. More likely number is something north of 500. Maybe as many as 2,500. At any rate is was a massacre.
When Tankman walked in with his grocery bags a column of tanks was rolling down the street. Instead of running away from armed soldiers who was already killed hundreds of people the day before, Tankman does something incredible. He runs up to the lead tank and – well to continue the basketball theme – sets the most daring pick in history. He plants himself in front of the lead tank. He gestures with his grocery bags for the tanks to go back. More incredibly, instead of shooting him on the spot, the lead tank tries to maneuver around him. Undeterred, Tankman quickly moves in front of the tank again. Then he climbs onto the tank and get the driver to come out. I don’t speak Mandarin. But, I suspect Tankman was asking the 19 or 20 year-old tank driver why he was firing on his own people. This played out on televisions around the world. (Go to YouTube and search for “Tank Man Tiananmen Square” if you have never seen it.)
We can only speculate on what happened to Tankman. We don’t even know his real name. He was not successful in getting the troops to stand down. Nonetheless, he scared the hell out of the powers that be in Beijing. He continues to scare them to this day. The folks who run things in China are more fearful of Tankman than they are of the United States or any military force. How do I know this? Because if you are reading this you are probably not sitting in front of a computer in China. The Chinese government goes to incredible lengths to make sure that no mention of Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989 or Tankman ever makes it past government censors or internet filters. They are on a higher alert status for mention of these terms than they are for missiles coming over the horizon. In fact, if you are a Chinese citizen born after June 5, 1989, and have never left China, I am willing to bet that you have never heard of Tankman. The folks who run things in Beijing are trying to make sure that you hear or read any reference to him. They are afraid that there are more Tankmen and Tankwomen out there. And, we all know that the only way to stop a bad government with a tank is with a good guy with a couple of grocery bags.
(c) June 5, 2014 – Keith M. Harrison