Archive for June, 2009

Tienanmen’s 20th Anniversary–“The Tank Man”

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags , on June 5, 2009 by tzaniello

Although it was first shown three years ago, the single-best introduction and analysis of the Tienanmen events of 1989 remains Frontline’s “Tank Man.” This is my entry on the film from THE CINEMA OF GLOBALIZATION:

The Tank Man

Frontline makes an extraordinary claim in its documentary about “the tank man,” the Beijing man who stepped out in front of the Red Army’s tanks as they rolled in to Tienanmen Square in 1989 to crush the New Democracy movement that was sweeping the nation and whose photograph (and video footage of his courageous and foolhardy act) became an inspiration for many people to resist oppression in other countries. He disappeared after his moment of fame, but because he symbolized the resistance to state control, Frontline argues that in effect the entrenched Chinese leadership made an implicit deal with its own people: we will give you economic freedom but not political freedom. That is: there will be a Starbucks on the corner but you cannot use the Internet without censorship.

Frontline demonstrates how, in just seventeen years, this strange pact with the devil seems to have come true. China’s economy is booming, people in Beijing now have incomes and consumer goods that were dreams in 1989, and capitalism at the top is thriving. At the bottom millions of rural folk have been displaced, desperate for jobs in the new industrial economy, and treated like second class citizens. Many Beijingers nevertheless remember how their fellow citizens were murdered by the Red Army the day before Tank Man made his move. Some wonder if the cost of globalization for China’s economy has been too high.

Of course footage of such an event today would be routine and even captured by cell phones and web and pod cast around the world in seconds. In 1989 capturing this moment before widespread digitalization was lucky: one Western photographer hid his roll of film in his hotel toilet bowl tank because he knew the security people had spotted him photographing Tank Man from his balcony. (This is the most often reproduced Associated Press photo by Jeff Widener at Live footage of Tank Man moving about to block the tank and even climbing aboard to converse with the driver is compelling viewing. To my eye the people rushing to lead him away were sympathetic fellow protestors, not security men, but others think he was arrested and murdered.

One man and one tank carry a big message for Frontline but their evidence of a globalized China launched in part because of political oppression is nonetheless convincing. In one sense the students and others who demonstrated for continued economic reforms and political liberalization ended up with half of the loaf but at a very great cost.


Martel, Ned. “Mystery of One Man’s Act of Defiance on One Day in Beijing.” New York Times, 11 April 2006. Although the reviewer is also captivated by the mystery of Tank Man’s disappearance, he finds some of the documentary “rambling” and over-ambitious in its scope: the film “reintroduces a frustratingly faceless enigma and teases a viewer with the hope of a resolution that never arrives.”

Wong, Jan. Red China Blues. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Memoir, subtitled “My Long March from Mao to Now,” by a Canadian of Chinese origin, who went from a pure red Maoist during the Cultural Revolution to a horrified participant in the Tiananmen Square events.

Zhang Liang, Andrew J. Nathan, and Perry Link, ed. The Tiananmen Papers, The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against their Own People—In their Own Words. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2001. Volume documents how both hardliners and reformers at the top levels of the Chinese Communist Party debated the fate of the student protests on the New Democracy movement; in the end it is economic reformer Den Xiaopeng who gets the credit for approving the military attack on the square.