Man who faced down Chinese tanks cloaked in mystery

No positive identification of solitary figure exists

June 04, 1999|By NEWSDAY

BEIJING -- About noon June 5, 1989, on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, a column of tanks lumbered just beyond the old Beijing Hotel. From a crowd of bystanders a man holding a plastic bag stepped into the middle of the avenue, right in front of the lead tank, bringing the whole procession to a halt.

For the next minute or so the man held out alone against the advance of the tanks, part of a military force that just the day before had brutally ended the student occupation of Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds in the process. Eventually bystanders stepped forward to pull him away to safety.

That tense drama 10 years ago would provide the definitive image of the mass protests that pushed the ruling Communist Party to the brink -- a single courageous man standing defiantly against the overwhelming power of a tyrannical state.

The image captured by Western television cameras became one of the century's most memorable. A naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack by American troops. Dazed and emaciated survivors at Buchenwald. Nelson Mandela walking out of prison.

The Man In Front of the Tanks has since shown up in a song and a Wim Wenders movie. He has been lionized by presidents and pressed onto T-shirts and posters. Last year Time magazine proclaimed him one of the 20th century's top 20 leaders and revolutionaries, right there with Mao Tse-tung. "He deserves a place among the giants," Dan Rather intoned solemnly.

But who was he, and what became of him?

He has never been positively identified, except in a report of dubious credibility in the British tabloid Sunday Express. That report gave his name as Wang Weilin, 19, the son of Beijing factory workers. No facts exist to support this claim; no one has ever spoken to him or to his friends or family.

Chinese authorities insist that the man was never arrested, let alone imprisoned or killed as some have alleged. President Jiang Zemin told Barbara Walters in April 1990 that authorities had been unable to identify him.

The apparent failure of the police to apprehend him has made it almost impossible to know who he is, and whether he is dead or alive.

Several requests for information in the past month to judicial and public security authorities in Beijing went unanswered. By telephone, a spokeswoman for the Public Security Bureau retorted: "How do you expect us to find him?"

Events conspired to hide his true identity. In the chaos in the streets of Beijing in June 1989, no one has even able to identify any of the bystanders who pulled him to safety. The only Western TV cameras present, placed on balconies of the Beijing Hotel, caught him only from the back, leaving his face hidden.

The mystery has only fed the mythology. Why did the tanks not roll over this lone man, when troops had spent the previous 36 hours killing hundreds of unarmed protesters? The government has seized upon this fact as a demonstration of the restraint of the People's Liberation Army. Others have projected only the imagery of an individual's indomitable spirit in the face of insurmountable odds.

"I don't think anyone in the world can find this person," said Han Dongfang, who formed an independent labor movement during the tumult of 1989, was jailed and finally forced into exile in Hong Kong. "There will be at least 20 people claiming that they are the person."

"Who he was is not important at all," he said. "What is important is that he was there, and by his act he gave encouragement to a lot of people."

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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