For seven weeks starting in April 1989, university students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Communists were terrified. Though there were some hardliners, the Communists understood the need for economic reforms. They did not want a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 60s when Maoists doubled down on statism and Communism, and 30 million people died as a result. The Chinese people remembered this devastation from a scant twenty years before. In the spring of 1989, they would not stand for it again. In support of the students, millions protested across China for market reforms, free speech, free press, and a way to remove the intolerably corrupt politicians of the Communist government.
But unlike the Soviets and the communists of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communists were under no illusions about what would happen if they held elections. However, they did have one advantage that the other communist governments did not have: the People’s Liberation Army was not state controlled as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, they were party controlled. They could be relied upon for use against the Chinese people. First subjugation, then economic reforms. In early May 1989, a concerted effort was made to mobilize and bring formations up to fighting standard, and on 20 May 1989, the communists declared martial law.
250,000 PLA soldiers descended on Beijing. However, by 24 May, they were stopped cold by millions of peaceful protesters. For a week there was an impasse, but on 3 June, the communists had had enough. They ordered the PLA to use force to remove the protestors. Although some units refused to shoot civilians, thousands were killed when communist soldiers opened fire that night and into the next day. Almost immediately, vicious street battles broke out after students and shopkeepers banded to together to fight tanks and machine guns with rocks and fists. By the end of 4 June at least three thousand lay dead, and many more wounded. The fighting was largely unnoticed by the outside world.
The communists, like all tyrannical governments, feared scrutiny and transparency so they either coopted or coerced the domestic media into submission. But their censors did not apply to foreign journalists so they had placed severe restrictions on them, including harassment, isolation, and cutting their communications. Nevertheless, on 5 June 1989, those journalists locked in the Beijing Hotel witnessed an amazing event from their balconies. As a column of Type 59 tanks approached Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Avenue, an unnamed man crossed the broad street carrying two bags of groceries. The lead tank came to a stop just before hitting the man. The man, looking up, stood in front of the tank and then refused to move. The driver attempted to go around him, but the young man moved with it. The driver eventually stopped and shut down his engine, and soon the entire column did the same. For a long moment, it seemed that this one courageous individual had defeated the communist regime. The young man talked with the tank crew for a while, but was eventually seized by two goons from the People’s Security Bureau. The column continued on. Tank Man was never identified, nor was he seen or heard from again.
Despite the international exposure that the photos of Tank Man gave the events in China of early June 1989, the PLA successfully dispersed the protestors by 7th of that month. Afterwards, the communists rounded up and arrested anyone with connections to the protests. The People’s Republic of China is one of the few communist regimes that survived 1989. Today, due to censorship, Tank Man is unrecognized and unknown in China.