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Then, in the dark early hours of June 4, the government struck back, sending tanks from all directions toward Tiananmen Square and killing hundreds of workers and students and doctors and children, many later found shot in the back. In the unnatural quiet after the massacre, with the six-lane streets eerily empty and a burned-out bus along the road, it fell to the tank man to serve as the last great defender of the peace, an Unknown Soldier in the struggle for human rights.
As soon as the man had descended from the tank, anxious onlookers pulled him to safety, and the waters of anonymity closed around him once more. Some people said he was called Wang Weilin, was 19 years old and a student; others said not even that much could be confirmed. Some said he was a factory worker's son, others that he looked like a provincial just arrived in the capital by train. When American newsmen asked Chinese leader Jiang Zemin a year later what had happened to the symbol of Chinese freedom--caught by foreign cameramen and broadcast around the world--he replied, not very ringingly, "I think never killed."
In fact, the image of the man before the tank simplified--even distorted--as many complex truths as any image does. The students leading the demonstrations were not always peace loving and notoriously bickered among themselves; many were moved by needs less lofty than pure freedom. At least seven retired generals had written to the People's Daily opposing the imposition of martial law, and many of the soldiers sent to put down the demonstrators were surely as young, as confused and as uncommitted to aggression as many of the students were. As one of the pro-democracy movement's leaders said, the heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot.
Nine years after the June 4 incident, moreover, it's unclear how much the agitators for democracy actually achieved. Li Peng, who oversaw the crackdown on them, is still near the top of China's hierarchy. Jiang, who proved his colors by coming down hard on demonstrators in Shanghai, is now the country's President. And on a bright winter morning, Tiananmen Square is still filled, as it was then, with bird-faced kites and peasants from the countryside lining up to have their photos taken amid the monuments to Mao.
Yet for all the qualifications, the man who stood before the tanks reminded us that the conviction of the young can generate a courage that their elders sometimes lack. And, like student rebels everywhere, he stood up against the very Great Man of History theory. In China in particular, a Celestial Empire that has often seemed to be ruled by committee, a "mandate of Heaven" consecrated to the might of the collective, the individual has sometimes been seen as hardly more than a work unit in some impersonal equation. A "small number" were killed, Mao once said of the death of 70,000, and in his Great Leap Forward, at least 20 million more were sacrificed to a leader's theories. In that context, the man before the tank seems almost a counter-Mao, daring to act as the common-man hero tirelessly promoted by propaganda and serving as a rebuke--or asterisk, at least--to the leaders and revolutionaries who share these pages.