PBS Frontline: 'The Tank Man'

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Antony Thomas
Filmmaker
Wednesday, April 12, 2006; 11:00 AM

Filmmaker Antony Thomas was online Wednesday, April 12, at 11 a.m. ET to answer questions about the PBS Frontline film "The Tank Man," a look at the solitary protestor who confronted advancing tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The indelible image came to be a symbol of the protestors and the government's attempts stifle them. In "The Tank Man," Frontline examines not only the identity and fate of the man in the picture, but how the freedoms he represented have progressed in China's social and political scene. Government restrictions on the Internet has renewed concern over freedom of speech and led to scrutiny of the role of companies like Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google.

PBS Frontline's "The Tank Man" aired Tuesday, April 11, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Antony Thomas has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas and is author of the biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas has won numerous awards, including an Emmy Award, George Foster Peabody Award and a British Academy Award.

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East Tawas, Mich.: I watched your program last night right after I saw it I wanted to buy a DVD my question was did people in China get to see this and can I buy a copy if the program if so where online. Thank you very much and your program was great you should air it again!

Antony Thomas: Thank you very much for your kind inquiry. The DVDs are available for purchase at our store. People inside China were unable to watch the broadcast, however the full program will soon be available on the FRONTLINE Web site, and it's unclear if people in China will be able to access that site.

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Washington, D.C.: Two questions: First of all, I couldn't understand President Jiang Zemin's response to Barbara Walters' question. Did he say he believes the tank man was killed?

Secondly, one of the most striking scenes in the show was when four young Beijing University students were unable to identify this famous, iconic picture. Are they typical among young people in China today? Is there really no awareness of what happened in June, 1989?

Antony Thomas: Party Secretary repeatedly said, "Never killed."

And I'm afraid that those young students are fairly typical of an entire generation that has been starved of information.

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Alexandria, Va.: Would it be appropriate to discuss whether any action was taken against the drivers of the tanks?

Antony Thomas: Many people have tried to investigate this. But we have no knowledge of what happened to the driver of the lead tank.

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Chicago, Ill.: I guess it isn't that surprising that today's Beijing college students don't have any reference to the Tank Man. Maybe someone should spam the Chinese Web with Tank Man images to see where it goes. It's an image that's recognizable across the world as an act of civil defiance, but if the Internet were flooded with this photo with no caption or explanation, some might want to ask what it was. Just an idea.

Antony Thomas: A very interesting idea.

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Mexico City: Is it all levels of education and healthcare that are not free anymore in China?

Antony Thomas: Yes. That's correct.

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Westford, Mass.: Hi,

I am a Chinese now living in the U.S. I was in Beijing on that day. I just want to know what you think: There is a huge difference between the perception of China by most Americans and the reality, thanks to the the stereotyped reporting of the media and the ignorance of most politicians (does "they are a communist country and they have no conscience" sound familiar?). It may tell most Americans what media or politicians wanted them to believe about the stereotype: the repressive communist dictator tried to crash the aspiration for freedom of the people. But my questions are: what do you think would happen in any other country if someone is trying to block the advance of a military tank at the time of declared martial law? What would tell you by the very fact that someone dared to stand in front of it and the fact that the tank actually didn't crash him but to the contrary tried to go around him? I think it is really difficult to answer those questions if one doesn't have very deep understanding of China.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your message.

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Laguna Niguel, Calif.: Enjoyed the program. Interesting to find out where some of the former student leaders ended up. I assume many of them are now prospering from the "open market" just like some of the hippies of the '70s ended up in corporate board rooms. Shocked to learn that Internet providers such Yahoo!, Cisco, Microsoft, etc. are so quick to justify their "assistance" to the Chinese government to monitor Internet users. They made it sound like they had no choice in the matter. I guess money comes before ethics or morals. What are a few imprisoned or executed lives compared the billions of dollars they will make in the business with China.

Antony Thomas: Thank you very much for your message. I've met several people of the Tiananmen generation who are now successful businesspeople in China, and actually they give me cause for optimism. When their generation is finally in government, I hope there will be a major change.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Although this was a very unfortunately event in the history of China, I believe that this will be just another blink mark in the long history. Some people will continue to talk about for many years after, but unless the China reassess Tiananmen Square event, officially this will be a just another rebellion. What percentage of population in China know what really happened in April 1989? I estimate less than 1 percent.

I do feel that eventually China will become a democratic society. Let the country develop into own pace. No one should force them. I think only way others can do is by encouraging them and let them experience freedom.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your interesting message.

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Alexandria, Va.: I thought it was very unusual that in all of the footage of the tank man, he never faced the camera. If he had, could we have had identified him?

Antony Thomas: He actually does face the camera at two points. But the resolution is so poor that even with the best visual enhancements we can't get a likeness of his face.

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Columbus, Ohio: What impact do you think China's economic growth/wealth will have on individual liberties in China? Will the government be forced over time to confer more power to the people, or will it continue to rule with an iron fist?

Antony Thomas: I don't believe that the situation can continue as it is now. My great hope is that a new generation will emerge in government that will change the present course peacefully. Thank you so much for your message.

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Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Having read some journalists' reactions to your film and finding corroboration for my feelings of sadness at the plight of the underclass and outrage at the crass complicity of U.S. tech companies in China's totalitarian controls, I wondered what you would suggest or what ideas you would endorse in terms of a directed, focused campaign to hasten the demise of these controls (censorship, intimidation, economic repression, etc.)? Terrific job, by the way. Thank you.

Antony Thomas: As a documentary filmmaker, I don't think it's appropriate for me to endorse political action. But I'm very grateful to you for your message.

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Montclair, N.J.: Frontline and Antony Thomas, your program has left me shocked and appalled.

The truth and full story of Tiananmen square and the subsequent political/economic effects has performed as a natural disaster to my world view. Thank you. I must rebuild. I had bought into the propaganda of a "changed China" when in reality the government just leveraged itself some time. My admiration and trust in socially responsible companies like Yahoo, Google, and Cisco has taken a beating.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your very kind message. I felt equally disillusioned when I got deep into the research for this program.

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Wellington, Fla.: I was quite surprised when you interviewed the farmers whose children were heading to work in the cities, both said they had three sons. I thought China policy was still only one child per family unless you paid money to the government and obviously these people do not have the money to do that. Do you know how these families were able to have more children than the one, or don't these rules apply anymore?

Thank you.

Antony Thomas: A very good question. And one that I didn't follow through when I was in the village.

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Athens, Ga.: Isn't it possible that the four Bei Da students only pretended not to recognize the photo of "Tank Man" when they were being interviewed by foreign media? It is truly remarkable if, in fact, these students know nothing about this image.

Antony Thomas: If they were pretending, they were actors worthy of Oscar awards. I studied their expressions very carefully and for many times during editing. There wasn't a glimmer of recognition from any of them.

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Columbus, Ohio: I lived in China a few years after June 4, 1989, and was in Beijing last year. The changes are amazing of course, however I do wonder about the students who were shown the picture. Much like the factory workers who had minders, I suspect the students were under the same situation, no matter how overt. My friends in China all know of the actions of the government (which were horrific all over the country) and find it hard to believe students smart enough to go to Bei Da would not know of the actions of the PLA in June of 1989.

Antony Thomas: It's clear from the boy's whispered remark that he knew that this image had something to do with 1989, but it's equally clear that no one in that room had any knowledge of the Tank Man's act of defiance.

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada: I am Sissi from China. I know this event from some ways. Do you think there is one day that China government would face the truth and make an apologize for what they did ?

Antony Thomas: I think if anyone in government were to revisit those events and tell the truth, that person would gain the respect of the whole nation.

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Keene, Tex.: Hi, I am a Taiwanese 20-year-old college student in Texas who's been raised mostly outside of Taiwan. I was deeply intrigued by your film, because I've always heard about the massacre but it was very foreign to me. How do you think your story of the Tank Man can educate younger Chinese generations?

Antony Thomas: I look forward to the day when a young generation in China is able to view documentaries like The Tank Man, and indeed any documentary on any subject.

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DeKalb, Ill.: Good morning, Mr. Thomas. I happened on your documentary last night when I got home from work and found it transfixing. The images of young women burning up their health and life stitching together my clothing and my bedding churned up quiescent feelings of guilt and complicity that had lay dormant for some time.

The proponents of globalized manufacturing say that this guilt is mislaid, as the alternative is condemning the masses to even greater poverty scratching out a life in the fields. This will pass, they say, as capitalism's engine begins to turn and creates a middle class and greater wealth for all. Do you think this to be true? If the poor have no voice in government, no means of expression through civil society or independent unions, and the state is sufficiently strong to cast Tank Man into the memory hole in the most literal sense, as you have demonstrated so well, then what will cause a change in the current trends?

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your thoughtful and very interesting letter. I agree completely with your sentiments.

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Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: I enjoyed your program immensely. Kudos to you for making such a powerful documentary. I believe that your work will have a large impact towards continuing to see movement in the direction of bringing about positive changes in the future, especially in areas such as how Western tech companies are going to need to be more accountable in aiding such a regime. I look forward to seeing it again online, and then again when I get the DVD in the mail and share it with friends. One question I guess I could ask is if you enjoyed, or perhaps were influenced at all by, or simply how you feel about the works of Jung Chang, namely Wild Swans and her new Mao biography?

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your very kind message. I hope that in some small way this film can be a benefit to the Chinese people. I have read both Wild Swans and the Mao biography and I am a huge admirer of Jung Chang's work.

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San Jose, Calif.: I would like to understand the thinking behind screening of this program on April 11, just four days before Hu Jintao arrives in the U.S. for a visit?

What are the underlying motives for picking this screen date, and who made the decision to screen it at this date?

Antony Thomas: No underlying motive. The broadcast date was set months before we had any news of Hu Jintao's visit.

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New York, N.Y.: It was once common in the U.S. to refer to "Red China" or "Communist China" to contrast the PRC to ROC. Am I correct that politicians seems to have dropped the adjective and now speak of "China"? Despite the evidence of the tough talk during the hearings re Yahoo, Google, etc., hasn't the fading of the cold war changed the way conservatives view the authoritarian regime there?

Antony Thomas: We're in difficulties here. It's hard to describe that combination of free market economics and rigid authoritarian control as Communist. Two people in the program refer to it as a Fascist regime, but it's hard to apply any recognizable labels.

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Alexandria, Va.: The picture of the student and the tank is such a powerful picture. Its message is not just conveyed in its powerful composition, but also recognizing the moment the picture was taken.

I remember a lecture about it in college in my photojournalism class that focused on the who, where, when, and how this picture was taken.

How much is know about who took the picture, where he/she was, and what happened to the photographer after taking the picture?

Antony Thomas: I think you probably missed the first part of the film, which told the photographer's story. You can view the film on the FRONTLINE web site later today at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/.

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Arlington Va.: my response: I remember watching these events in high school and being crushed with disappointment. It was a coming of age moment for me about the world and our own government (though I don't know what we could have done), especially when China was later given most favored nation status.

Over the last several years I've been under the impression that China was changing -- better pay and work conditions, for example, but this does not seem to be the case. I wish more Americans knew where our jobs were going and under what circumstances. In-depth reporting like this on China is rare yet so necessary in these economic times! We don't even know who our competition is and it's sad.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your kind message. I agree with you that there have been few programs on China that have examined the very important issues that you discuss.

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Roswell, Ga.: I don't have a question, but it does questions or comments, and personally I want to thank you. I want to thank you for alerting me and the American public of what's happening in China. The unfortunate fact is that Americans will probably say "that's too bad" and go on with their busy online lives, but your film made me so sad and yet so angry and so filled with passion with the blatant disregard for human life. Communism is all about the worker. It's a flawed system, whose focus on fighting the evils of capitalism, yet the ideas that Karl Marx attacked are happening in China, a communist country, at an alarming rate. It's the worst of both worlds. You get the plight of the worker with capitalism, yet you don't get personal freedoms you get suffering and censorship. I hope I can stay fighting for the cause of the peasant of China any way I can. I will do all I can in whatever way I can to see the ideas of personal expression return. I was just reading in my PASTE magazine of poets who had escaped to the United States. Their accounts need to be made public, but alas I ramble. But thank you. Thank you so much. You are a hero, a true hero.

Antony Thomas: No, you're not rambling. You've touched the most important issues. And I'm so grateful for your message.

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Houston, Tex.: The unrest scene shown at the end of the program was farmers protesting the flooding of their land. Do you know of unrest or riots happening in the industrial regions? Can you give examples?

Antony Thomas: No. The farmers weren't protesting the flooding of their land. As the film made clear, they were resisting the confiscation of their land by a power company. Their problem was that their land was on the edge of an industrial area.

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Boston, Mass.: I just spent six months in China traveling and teaching English at a university. The country really seems to have a "multiple personality". It seems like the central government is moving slowly in the right direction as evidenced by the televising of the recent rocket launch. In the past these events were secret in case they went poorly. However, the local governments are still so far behind that if feels like China will never get there this way. I agree with you that it will take a new paradigm of government to take China where it needs to and well inevitably go. Hey, when they get a billion plus people all organized, they WILL rule the world.

Antony Thomas: Many thanks for your message. I think you're absolutely right with your final point!

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I watched with interest last night. Frontline is, without a doubt, one of the finest programs on television.

Here are my questions for you: How much of the footage from the broadcast did you actually do in China? What kind of approvals did you have to get? Were there officials who accompanied you when filming or supervised interviews of those who took part in the demonstrations?

Antony Thomas: Many thanks for your message. To answer your questions...

1) All the coverage of contemporary China we filmed ourselves, with the exception of the scene of a village riot, that was taken by a local person.

2) You have to submit a proposal to the Chinese government for official permission to film in the country, and all filming is done in the presence of a government representative. If you want to create a balanced program, you have to find ways of going out on your own and avoiding that surveillance.

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New York, N.Y.: Is there a version or are you planning on releasing a version of this documentary in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles or dubbing? I think it's important that people in China other than the expats and intellectual elite who understand English be exposed to your documentary. This is assuming a Chinese version could even make it into China pass any censorship.

Antony Thomas: A very good question. I'm afraid there are no plans to make a Mandarin version of the program.

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Washington, D.C.: Please tell us about how you came to make the film about tank man, was this your initial intention? or did it start out as a film on Tiananmen Square?

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your inquiry. In a discussion with close friends at WGBH a year ago, we felt that the search for the Tank Man could be the genesis of a program that touched many important issues in China.

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Hammond, La.: Comment: A Chinese graduate student is here telling me how frightened her parents, in a far away province, were at the time. I was in the hospital in Boston, and missed most of the news broadcasts, though I did see the tanks rolling through the square. I stood there, nine years later, a guest of the government, and in total ignorance of what had happened. Had I known, I would have been so upset to be in that place.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your message. I was very touched to hear of your own personal experiences.

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Canton, Mass.: Mr. Thomas,

My wife and I adopted our daughter from a rural Chinese province in 2004.

When I met the director of what we call "our daughter's first home," he specifically told me that, if we had not come to China and adopted our little girl, her life would have been relegated to working in the mushroom factories picking out poor quality mushrooms and then packaging them for shipment. That would have been "her lot in life."

When I watched your documentary this morning, the tears I shed on the day after the conversation with the director all came back to me a hundredfold.

Thank you so much for your hard work in trying to get the "truth" out to the western world about today's culture in China.

You will never know how much of an impact your work has already had. Not only personally for me, but for other parents who have adopted, or are waiting to adopt.

Do you plan any follow-ups after the 2008 Olympics?

Xie xie!

Antony Thomas: That's a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. At the moment there are no plans to return to China. I doubt if I would be welcomed by the authorities.

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Ottawa, Canada: I was taught in university that you couldn't have true economic development without a democratic government. That eventually the strains on a government caused by economic growth and the resulting market failures would force change on a one party state. That change could be peaceful or, more likely, violent. Do you think this theory is still relevant, or has China proven it to be false?

Antony Thomas: I think that theory is still relevant. I don't believe that China can continue on its present course for very long.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: There was a protester who thought she could stand in front of an Israeli bulldozer and stop it, and she failed and it cost the woman her life. When this man stood in front of the tank in China, did he ever indicate whether he feared the tactic would not work and he might get run over?

Antony Thomas: On the night of June 3-4, many people, including one group of 11 students, had been crushed by tanks, and at the time those incidents were well known. It is that which makes the actions of the Tank Man and the tank commander so extraordinary.

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Amesbury, Mass.: What can we do about the tech companies in this country helping China oppress its people like they do? Is it me, or are these companies acting very un-American? Or is this the new America? To put profits before decency, human rights, the environment. What about the companies that are out sourcing jobs to China? Do they have no responsibility for the working/living conditions these workers face? I find it disgusting that Wal-Mart and others are making all this money off the poor in China.

Antony Thomas: I agree with you, and hope that by publicizing these issues we may help to change the conditions under which Chinese labor is employed. Much of the abuse which you saw in the program last night is the responsibility of Western companies who are continually lowering the prices they are prepared to pay for manufactured goods and tightening delivery times.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining the discussion.

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