The Tank Man

Andre M. Wang May/June 2024
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This year marks the 35-year anniversary of one of the greatest movements for freedom in modern history. In the spring of 1989, millions of students and ordinary citizens flooded the streets of cities around China demanding government reform and individual freedom. For weeks they marched in protest against 30 years of an oppressive, tyrannical government.

The nerve center of the movement was Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the largest public space in the world, built on an inhuman scale. The enormous government buildings set around its perimeter and the vast treeless spaces in between symbolize the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.

Wang Tzu-tan, the author’s grandfather, who refused to join the Chinese Communist Party.

After weeks of unabating political protest, the nation’s embarrassed leaders hatched a plan of action in June 1989: Clear the square by dawn on June 4; no exceptions, no delays. Military units from every part of China were immediately mobilized to Beijing with orders to invade their country’s own capital.

The operation commenced on the afternoon of June 3. Tanks and armored personnel vehicles converged on Tiananmen Square from every direction, pushing through makeshift barricades erected by protesters blocking access to the square. As night fell, the city was illuminated with flames and explosions from Molotov cocktails and military gunfire.

Throughout the night, with weapons and ammunition normally reserved for the battlefield, Chinese soldiers indiscriminately fired into the crowd and the surrounding homes. Their tanks advanced toward the square.

As the sun rose on the morning of June 4, Tiananmen Square was clear, except for the human casualties and detritus of months of protests that blanketed the square.

On the morning of June 5, with its mission accomplished, the tanks lined up to make their way out of the city. But from these events, it is the image of one man that everyone remembers: the Tank Man.

As the tanks rolled their way out of the square down Chang’an Avenue (in English: the Avenue of Eternal Peace), a man calmly walked out and stood in front of the column of tanks. The tanks stopped. As the lead tank tried to make its way around the man, he stepped to the side to position himself in front of it again. After a minute of this tense standoff, the man climbed to the top of the tank, banged on the hatch, opened it, and chastised the soldier inside. He then climbed down and resumed his place in front of the tank.

Everyone who witnessed this incredible event thought surely this man would not survive. But before the soldiers could take any deadly retaliatory action, well-­meaning citizens waving white towels ran into the middle of the Avenue of Eternal Peace and whisked the man away.

To this day, no one knows the identity or whereabouts of the Tank Man. But he lives on in the hearts and aspirations of people all over the world seeking freedom and liberty.

There is, however, another Tank Man; a man with whom I have a personal connection. His name is Wang Tzu-tan, my paternal grandfather. Born and raised in Shanghai, he was a quiet, studious man who was devout to God and his faith. Since he worked for a church-run hospital in Shanghai as an accountant, he was targeted as a “counter-­revolutionary” when he refused to join the Communist Party.

Blacklisted by the government, my grandfather fled to Hong Kong for refuge, leaving his family behind. Once again he found work utilizing his accounting acumen for another religious-based hospital in the British colony. While in Hong Kong, he worked with a local church in mailing care packages to households in the Chinese mainland where basic supplies were scarce.

When it was discovered that the Chinese postal service refused to deliver the packages, ostensibly because they originated from a church, my grandfather took on the project himself. He repurchased and repacked the packages and dispatched them again to the mainland, this time under his own name—an act that would certainly enshrine his name on the government blacklist.

He eventually suffered a stroke. With no family in Hong Kong to care for him, he decided to return home to Shanghai and his family, who would help him recover.

Then late one evening the family was startled by a pounding on the door. A contingent of Mao’s Red Guards announced their presence and demanded to see my grandfather. They presented him with a criminal complaint and an order for his arrest. His crime: mailing an unauthorized package to a family of counter-­revolutionaries. The parcel contained a cup of flour and three packets of powdered milk.

According to my aunt, the guards seized my grandfather, grabbing his arms, and disappeared into the night. He was relegated to a reeducation labor camp outside of Hangzhou and over several months wrote desperate letters to my grandmother, pleading for gloves and socks to protect his extremities from the brutal winter.

Then one day she received a notice from the government. It was an invoice for seven cents for the cost of one bullet. He was buried in a mass grave near the labor camp, the location of which remains a mystery to this day.

I like to think that my grandfather was the original Tank Man 20 years before that iconic man blocked the column of tanks near Tiananmen Square and made history. And all of us, at some point, will find ourselves standing before a column of tanks—whether figuratively or, perhaps for some of us, literally. But when we stand for what is right, defend what is good, condemn what is evil, and advocate for what is honorable, noble, and just, that is same spirit of freedom that emboldened my grandfather and the Tank Man.

In many ways, by standing for liberty for ourselves and others, we are all Tank Men and Women. That would make my grandfather very proud.

Article Author: Andre M. Wang

Andre M. Wang serves as general counsel and director of public affairs and religious liberty for the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He continues to post musings on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.