"Covering China," Media Studies Journal, Winter 1999
On the morning of June 5, 1989 there was a moment that came to symbolize all the hope and tragedy of the largest nonviolent political protest in China's history. A column of tanks driving down Changan Ave away from Tiananmen Square encountered a young man who defiantly blocked their way. The event was recorded on video from the balconies of the old Peking Hotel and broadcast later that day on news shows around the world. For the millions of people who saw this scene, its meaning was clear: human hope and courage challenging the remorseless machinery of state power.
In China, where the government showed the image widely, authorities interpreted the scene differently. The narrator in one film, Flutter, Flag of the Republic, says it is testimony to the restraint of Chinese soldiers: "Anyone with common sense can see that if our tanks were determined to move on, this lone scoundrel could never have stopped them."
President Bush, Andrei Sakharov and Joan Baez all hailed the man, but his story and his name are not firmly known. The Chinese government claims that he was neither arrested nor executed. Reports of people claiming to be "the man" have usually been part of an effort to get asylum or sell a story. From watching the video, we can learn only that he was extraordinarily courageous. He stopped the column of tanks, blocked them several times as they attempted to maneuver around him, then talked with the crew of the lead tank. Finally, people rushed into the street and persuaded him to leave.
Charlie Cole, prize-winning photographer of the episode, thought it should be remembered as "an incredible action, not an incredible photograph." In our image-based consumer society, though, the image has taken on a life of its own. One cartoon shows "the man," transformed into Mickey Mouse, challenging the Chinese government with Kundun, Martin Scorcese's film on Tibet. It didn't seem to matter to the cartoonist that Mickey runs his own multinational entertainment empire with a budget comparable to that of the Chinese army, or that Disney had already offered to restrict distribution of Kundun to protect its substantial business interests with China. Benetton used the image in an ad campaign alongside images of Jesus on a cross and Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. Will the Gap someday run ads revealing that the man was wearing khakis?
Why are Westerners so fascinated by this image? Is it because it fits so nicely with the story we expect to see - good against evil, young against old, freedom against totalitarianism? In the hundreds of hours of network coverage of the Tiananmen story, only a few minutes featured Chinese participants speaking for themselves. Ten years later, the events for many people have been distilled into a single image. The man in front of the tanks now stands as one of the defining iconic images of the 20th century, like a monument in a vast public square created by television. Like most statues, he is mute.