Twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests passes in China

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Tank man" blocks a column of tanks heading east on Beijing's Chang'an Boulevard near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Image: Jeff Widener (Associated Press).

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China. The protests were sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang, a former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China who was forced to resign over his support for political and economic reform.

The protests began on April 14, 1989 and lasted until early June, nearly five weeks. Largely a student protest, people flocked to the square in the thousands. On June 3 and 4, 1989, the Chinese military finally regained control of the square. China says 241 people were killed. Other reports suggest the death toll could be as high as 5,000.

Ahead of today's anniversary, authorities placed known dissidents under house arrest and some were even forced to leave Beijing. Even family members of the victims of the massacre were placed under house arrest.

"We've been under 24-hour surveillance for a week and aren't able to leave home to mourn. It's totally inhuman," said Xu Jue to Associated Press. Xu's son was shot and killed by soldiers on June 4, 1989 at age 22.

A protest leader, who has lived in Taiwan since 1989, was detained when he tried to enter China through Macau.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to "examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal."

"This painful chapter in history must be faced. Pretending it never happened is not an option," the President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou said in a statement.

A memorial in Poland erected for the 1999 tenth anniversary.
Image: User:Julo.

Chinese authorities, nevertheless, made sure the day passed uneventfully in Tiananmen Square. Visitors were asked to present their passports and foreign journalists were barred from visiting the Square. Both uniformed and plain-clothed police officers stood guard.

The Los Angeles Times reported bus loads of men arriving at the Square with umbrellas. The paper called the scene a "vast ocean of umbrellas" and speculated that they were not ordinary tourists but sent there by the government to prevent people from taking photographs. A BBC report confirmed this, indicating that the umbrella-wielding crowd were all wearing radio earpieces as they smiled and persistently blocked all filming attempts around the square.

The government also blocked access to social networking websites and file-sharing sites. Foreign television news channels were blacked out whenever they carried a segment about the anniversary.

"Today is like any other day, stable," Qin Gang, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press briefing. He refused to acknowledge that there were special security measures in place.

"We urge the U.S. to put aside its political prejudice and correct its wrongdoing and refrain from disrupting or undermining bilateral relations," Qin said, and called Clinton's comments a "gross interference in China's internal affairs."

The vigil in Hong Kong
Image: Lachy Leung.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong a large crowd attended a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. Organizers estimated the crowd at 150,000 people, while police put the number at 62,800. Many carried banners in Chinese demanding justice for the students and other Beijing residents who died during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

"I am very happy that people have not forgotten the massacre in Tiananmen on June 4," vigil attendee Yvonne Chow said. "I am very sad because it destroyed our hopes for democracy."

The New York Times spoke to former Chinese soldier Chen Guang who was part of the retaking of the Square. Guang is now an artist in the outskirts of Beijing.

"We were assured there would be no legal consequences if we opened fire. My only hope was that the students would not put up a fight," Guang said. "I can assure you I didn’t shoot anyone."

Tiananmen Square
Image: Paul Louis.

"For 20 years I tried to bury this episode, but the older you get the more these things float to the surface," he said of his art which is based on photographs he took in 1989. "I think it’s time for my experiences, my truth, to be shared with the rest of the world."

During the protests, an incident occurred that gained international attention and quickly became an icon for the freedom movement in 1989. A lone man dubbed 'Tank Man', a yet to be identified Chinese man, gained world fame when he was photographed standing in the path of a convoy of military tanks on June 5, 1989, holding what appeared to be groceries, in an attempt to block their entrance into the square. Footage of the incident showed confusion, as the soldiers were unsure on how to proceed. After several attempts to go around the man, several men came out of the crowd and grabbed 'Tank Man' and carried him back into the crowd. To this day no one knows who he was or what happened to him.

Twitter, a microblogging website, and other social networking sites this morning began spreading the word of the anniversary. As a result, China blocked access to the website along with nearly a dozen other major Western social networking and photo-sharing websites. Among them included Flickr, Livejournal and the Huffington Post. Law forbids that anyone talk about or discuss the events of 1989.


Wikipedia has more about this subject: