Youth versus Bullets

Tank Man, 19-year-old Wang Weilin faces Chines tanks on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Wikipedia.

It’s an image that endures. It’s not old enough for us to call it historical yet. It only goes back about 30 years. But the frames of video taken by an amateur videographer show a man in a white shirt, dark pants, facing a column of military tanks. It was June 4, 1989. It was the final day of the student-organized, non-violence demonstration at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, just before China’s People’s Liberation Army gunned down hundreds of civilians for protesting government corruption and lack of free speech.

“Tank Man,” they called him. But the Sunday Express newspaper in Britain later claimed the man was Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student, who’d joined the weeks-long protest, despite the threat of annihilation.

Demonstrating change

Anti-Vietnam War demonstration c.1970.
Anti-Vietnam War demonstration c.1970.

It began rather innocently as a group of students naively wanting change. It was the ninth year of the war in Vietnam. I was in my second year at Ryerson. The U.S. National Guard shootings of four students at Kent State had just happened. On University Avenue in Toronto, we joined others whose agendas were wide-ranging. Some wanted world anarchy. Others were Americans burning their draft notices. Most were like us, just students wanting to change things for the better. Then, things went haywire.

“The police are on horses,” somebody shouted, “and they’re coming at us.”