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How the “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square Reminds Us of Our Clients

By Chris Potts posted on:
June 7, 2019

If you want to know what kind of people we represent at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), you need look no farther than the other side of the world, to a man we have nothing to do with. A man whose name we don’t know. A man no one at ADF has ever met. A man who may well have died a long time ago.

This week marks 30 years since the Chinese Communist government cracked down on thousands of mostly-student protesters in the heart of Beijing.

I wasn’t there, that summer of 1989, but I had been three years earlier – going to, and later, coming from a small agricultural college in the western part of the country. I was with a handful of American teachers traveling to help a few hundred high school students tighten their shaky grasp of English. They were delightfully eager to learn, and many had fond dreams of traveling to the U.S. one day.

We teachers did what we could, sharing knowledge and gaining memories. After a few weeks, we bade a fond “zai jian” to their beaming young faces, and wished them Godspeed in their future plans. For most, those plans involved traveling to distant Beijing that fall or the next, to begin their university studies.

Our now close-knit teaching group came home and scattered to our own divergent lives, but kept in touch, and tried to reunite once a year, to re-swap stories and wonder about our students and to pray for them. In 1989, our reunion fell on Sunday, June 4. We were laughing over lunch and talking about the big protests going on in Beijing and guessing at which and how many of our former students might be in those joyful crowds in Tiananmen Square.

And then, we heard what was happening.

We gathered around a TV and watched the shootings, the tanks, and all those dead young people being carried from the square. We wondered how many of them we might know … might have smiled at, across a classroom, three years earlier.

It was the brutal end of an all-too-fleeting era of hope for the Chinese people – for a generation of youth who dreamed of democracy and freedom and never guessed how steep the surcharge on those free, inalienable rights can be. If you look at pictures from those days, so many of the students are cheering, excited, and hopeful. They never saw the tanks coming.

But one man did.


Standing in that “Avenue of Eternal Peace,” now so violently cleansed of free speech and exuberant demonstration, he paused. He probably had other things to do: maybe some shopping to finish or groceries to put away. Could be he had no part in the big, crowded showdowns of the previous days. But he could hear the echoes of gunfire near at hand. And now the tanks were bearing down on him.

He stood his ground. Took a step or two toward that first tank. It tried to go around him. He deliberately moved back into its path. The tank paused, and they stared at each other for awhile. Then the man clambered up on the war machine, looking for a hole to talk through. After a while, he climbed down. Two men in blue ran up, grabbed him, and hurried him into the crowd.

To this day, no one knows if the people who scurried him off were friends or foes. No one knows if he was, as some said, executed soon after for his defiance, or if, as others believe, he vanished into peaceful anonymity. People there that day say he wasn’t the only one to confront the tanks. He’s just the one of whom we have this slightly fuzzy, long-distance picture.

At ADF, we defend people like him. People who are going about their business – not professional agitators or wild-eyed malcontents. Just ordinary people who suddenly, in the course of their day-to-day lives, find some group or element of the government determined to bulldoze through their freedom.

They are confronted with the intimidating instruments of civic authority. And instead of genuflecting, or stepping aside, or hurrying to get out of the way … they choose to stand.

And we choose to stand with them.

Who they are may seem a little fuzzy, to those gazing on from a distance. But up close, what we see is their clear faith … their genuine humility … their simple determination to confront the forces that would rob them – would rob all of us – of our freedom.

You may not know their names. Maybe they’re just “the florist,” “the baker,” or “the fire chief.”

But we hope you will appreciate their courage. And how much all of the freedoms we sit and enjoy depend on those brave few who see what is coming … and choose to stand.

Chris Potts

Chris Potts

Senior Writer

Chris Potts is a senior writer for Alliance Defending Freedom, sharing stories of Christians who stand up for the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and religious freedom.


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