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What Would You Do? — Tiananmen Square — Why Did He Stop?

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April 2, 2009

One way MOAA attempts to fulfill our goal of being the professional association of choice for all military officers and their families is by promoting enduring values of military professionals, including the highest ethical standards.

Each month, this page will feature a different ethics case study provided by Capt. Rick Rubel, USN-Ret., distinguished Professor of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. With each case study, Rubel will provide suggested questions, and readers will be able to discuss and comment. Whether you are currently serving, in a second career, or retired, there will be something here that makes you think. Unlike rules of engagement or standards of conduct, remember there is not necessarily a right answer to an ethical dilemma.

We hope you find this series interesting, but more important, we hope to promote discussion and thinking about ethical challenges facing people in uniform, whether in combat or in the normal course of duty. Be sure to check back in May for the author’s comments on this case study.



Questions for the reader
The tank

By Capt. Rick Rubel, USN-Ret.

One of the most difficult questions in military ethics is whether we want our servicemembers to be morally responsible or to do as they are told?

The paradoxical answer to this is: Yes. We train them to do as they are told, but we also want them to be morally responsible. In the case below, the driver of the T-69 tank was told by the People’s Liberation Army to follow orders, but, instead, he did what was morally responsible. How can we explain this paradox?

Questions for the reader  

  1. With the entire People’s Liberation Army behind him, why do you think the tank driver stopped?  
  2. Would you attribute the virtue of moral courage to the tank driver?  
  3. What is the difference between moral courage and physical courage?  
  4. How would you compare the ethical actions of the tank driver with the actions of the man in the white shirt? If you think the tank driver exhibited moral courage, how does his moral courage differ from that of the man in the white shirt?  
  5. If the tank driver had not stopped, how differently would history have viewed this incident?  
  6. Which action do you think requires more moral character — standing in front of the tank or stopping the tank (disregarding direct orders, despite all of your training and the strict discipline of your service)? Do you think you could do either?  
  7. What factors other than a tank driver’s character could make it more or less likely he would stop his tank in such a situation? Generally, what factors affect obedience under authority? (Note: The famous Milgram experiments addressed this question.)  
  8. Do we want our servicemembers to be morally responsible, or do we want them to do as they are told? 


The spring of 1989 was a period unlike any other in the history of China. For a number of reasons, there was an unprecedented series of pro-democracy protests by university students in Beijing. The large gatherings started with the mourning of the death of Hu Yoabang, former general secretary of the Communist Party. More than 100,000 students took advantage of this event to gather outside the Great Hall and demand to meet with party leaders to discuss freedom of the press and other democratic reforms. The leaders refused. In late April, the demonstrations escalated and moved to other cities in China. Members of the party leadership genuinely feared this unrest might lead to full-scale chaos and eventually rebellion.i  

Inside the Politburo the new general secretary, Li Peng, called a meeting to decide what to do about the growing insurrection. He concluded the students’ aim was to overthrow him and the Communist Party. The Chinese government issued a statement saying, “The party has thus far been tolerant and restrained, but the time has come for action. They must explain to the whole party and nation that they are facing a most serious political struggle … and they have to be explicit and clear in opposing this turmoil.”ii  

The statement set off more demonstrations, and as many as 10 percent of all working Beijing citizens were involved in the protests.

As Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit since 1959, the Chinese government was embarrassed by student hunger strikes and rioting in Tiananmen Square during Gorbachev’s visit.

On May 17, the Chinese government declared martial law in the city, but that proclamation was met by the addition of 1.2 million protestors. The troops of the People’s Liberation Army were marshaled from their posts in outlying provinces. The army formed up outside the city for briefings by General Chi Haotian, the operational commander of the 350,000 army troops that had been called together to stop the protestors.

The Chinese army is known for intense training, strict discipline, and serious consequences for insubordination. To ensure his troops would fire on protesting citizens, Haotian took two crucial actions. First, he kept his troops on the outskirts of the city for 10 days for intense political indoctrination. The young soldiers, mostly peasants were told repeatedly they were being sent in to protect the city from “hoodlums.” They knew nothing of the demonstrations for democracy in Tiananmen Square. Second, Haotian used the 27th Group Army as his spearhead. He had spent many years with the 27th, ultimately rising to be its senior political officer. He knew its soldiers were loyal to the party and would not let him down.iii 

In the early morning hours of June 3, the army’s assault on Tiananmen Square began. The army was ordered to clear the square of protestors by 6 a.m. As the protestors threw rocks and bottles at the army, the soldiers started firing machine guns into the crowd. Dozens of people fell, and others ran away. Then, over and over again, the people in the crowd came back to the corner of the square to yell and throw more objects. Each surge of the crowd was met by another round of machine-gun fire. Many protestors were run over by tanks or injured by the Chinese army soldiers using bayonets.iv  

By June 5, the army was in complete control, and an eerie silence came over an empty Tiananmen Square. But the silence came only after 2,600 civilians had been killed and 7,000 to 10,000 had been injured.v 

At this time, with resistance broken, the rest of the army tanks and troops were able to easily enter the city from all four corners and meet up at Tiananmen Square.

The tank  

On the morning of June 5, a corporal of the People’s Liberation Army sat in the driver’s seat of his T-69 tank looking out of his small, bulletproof viewing window.vi The viewing window continually was fogging up from the humid air. Because his tank was not carrying any 105 mm ammunition for the main gun, there was room for him to move both arms around his small seat area. It was carrying, however, three times the normal load of ammo for the 7.62 mm co-axial machine gun and 12.7 mm smaller machine gun.vii 

The corporal was no doubt proud of his service to the Republic. Because there were many more tank drivers than tanks, there was a certain prestige to being assigned to a tank.

He most likely had grown up on a farm never been to a big city — yet now he found himself driving his tank down Chang’an Boulevard toward Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Radio broadcasts the previous night indicated army soldiers had successfully put down a threat to the capital by valiantly killing the hoodlums who opposed the government.

As his tank traveled down Chang’an Boulevard, his commander took the lead of eight tanks. There were another 60 tanks preparing to reposition after his column had completed their move. As the corporal wiped the condensation off the window, he saw a man wearing a white shirt, carrying two shopping bags, and standing in front of his tank. He slammed on the brakes, and the 83,000 pound tank jerked as it came to a stop.

The corporal watched the man for a few seconds, not knowing what to do. Neither he nor the man moved for more than 30 seconds. As the other tanks halted behind his tank, a voice over the radio speakers began to screech, “What is happening? Proceed! Proceed!” His tank commander echoed the order, “Proceed! Proceed!”

He disengaged the brakes and turned his tank to the right to miss the man in the white shirt. Incredibly, the man moved to his left and blocked the tank again. He stopped. Then he tried to go to the left, and the man moved to his right to block the tank again.

By now, several minutes had passed, and the armor battalion commander angrily was yelling in the radio, “Proceed! Proceed!” the corporal was confused. He had never seen anything like this in his training command or even in political army school. As he once again furiously wiped the condensation off the viewing port, he reached over and turned off the huge V-12, 730-horsepower engine to cool off the tank during this impasse. When he turned off his engine, the tanks behind him did the same. There he sat inside his tank in the quiet humid darkness of Tiananmen Square, wondering, What just happened?


The man in the white shirt quickly was grabbed by some other anonymous citizens and taken away to safety. The Western press has been unable to determine who this man was. Nevertheless, the photographic image of this one man, standing in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, shortly after such a horrible massacre, reverberated around the world. After these events, the government of China significantly changed its economic policies and gave its people more individual and civil rights.

Before the Berlin Wall came down later that same year, East Berliners were heard chanting, “If one man can stop the Chinese Army, we can tear down the Iron Curtain.”

In 1998, Time magazine listed the man in the white shirt as one of the top 100 “Most influential people of the 20th century."viii But what about the tank driver? Why did he stop?


iFrom Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia.
iiThe Tank Man (Tiananmen Square Anniversary),” PBS: Frontline, April 14, 2006 (transcript).
iii “When China’s General Chi Comes to Call,” William Triplett II, The Washington Times, 4 December, 1996.
ivThe Tank Man (Tiananmen Square Anniversary),” PBS: Frontline, April 14, 2006(transcript).
vThe Tank Man (Tiananmen Square Anniversary),” PBS: Frontline, April 14, 2006(transcript).
vi Extensive searches have not been able to identify the name of the tank driver.
vii See the Global Security.Org website
viii The writer would like to acknowledge Dr. Al Pierce and his contribution to this case.



About the Author: Capt. Rick Rubel, USN-Ret., currently is the distinguished military professor of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. After a 30-year career in the Navy, he has taught the Core Ethics Course for 10 years and has served as course director for the past six years. He is coauthor and coeditor of Case Studies in Military Ethics (Pearson Publishing, 2006).

Copyright Capt. Rick Rubel, USN-Ret., and Military Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.