The “Tank Man” photo has shaped the world’s memory of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 because it conveys so many themes at once. The physical courage of a lone, slightly built man standing up to an army; the act of individual protest in a society usually assumed to value collective interests over any one person; even the moral choice posed to the tank drivers, about whether to run over an unarmed fellow citizen. They didn’t—after a few minutes, other civilians hustled the Tank Man off the street and away from any effort to identify him or hear his story in all the years since.
China’s censorship in those days was so thoroughgoing that the photo and the event it represented are barely known among today’s young Chinese. But the current era has produced another symbol of brave, individual moral protest, and the spread of social media means that his message and example have a better chance of surviving.
Chen, who has been blind since early childhood and taught himself law, showed physical courage comparable to the Tank Man’s in climbing over walls and feeling his way along roadsides for miles, to escape the house in which local authorities had detained and physically abused him and his family for years. He broke a bone in his foot and fell repeatedly, but he continued on.