China deployed its huge security apparatus on Wednesday to stamp out commemoration of the suppression of pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, flooding the streets with police as censors scrubbed the Internet clean of any mention of the crackdown.
For the ruling Communist Party, the demonstrations in 1989 that clogged Tiananmen Square in Beijing for about six weeks as well as other cities have long been a taboo topic.
The anniversary of the date on which troops shot their way into central Beijing has never been publicly marked in mainland China, although every year there are commemorations in Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, as well as in self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
The government has never released a death toll for the crackdown, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.
Police, soldiers and plainclothes security personnel enveloped Tiananmen Square, checking identity cards and rummaging through bags looking for any hint that people might try and sneak onto the square to commemorate the day.
Police escorted a reporter off the square, which was thronged with tourists, saying it was closed to foreign media. Police also detained another Reuters journalist for trying to report on the anniversary in one of Beijing’s university districts, releasing him after a few hours.
Public discussion of the events of June 4, 1989, is off-limits in China. Many young people are unaware of what happened because of years of government efforts to banish memories of the People’s Liberation Army shooting its own citizens.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday defended the crackdown, saying the government had chosen the correct path for the sake of the people. The government at the time labelled the pro-democracy movement “counter-revolutionary”.
The protests began in April 1989 as a demonstration by university students in Beijing to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, the reformist Communist Party chief who had been ousted by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The protests grew into broader demands for an end to corruption as well as calls for democracy.
Many Chinese would balk at the idea of mass revolution today. China is now the world’s second biggest economy, with most Chinese enjoying individual and economic freedoms never accorded them before.
But Wu’er Kaixi, a leading figure in the pro-democracy movement of 1989, said Chinese people could rise up once more against the Communist Party in anger at anything from endemic graft to the country’s badly polluted air, water and soil.
Rights group Amnesty International has said at least 66 people had been detained in the period leading up to the anniversary.
That includes prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and four other activists who were detained last month after attending a private meeting at an apartment in Beijing to discuss the crackdown, prompting concern in the United States and Europe.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said it was disappointing that people associated with June 4 continued to face harassment and imprisonment.
“On this important anniversary, we must continue to voice our concerns on restrictions and abuses against freedom of speech, internet freedom, freedom of association, and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in China,” he said in a statement.
Ma Ying-jeou, president of democratic Taiwan, said China should ensure that a “tragedy” like June 4 never happened again.
“If Chinese authorities can tolerate differences, not only can that raise the height and the legitimacy of those in power, but also send a clear message to Taiwan that political reform in China is serious,” Ma said in a statement.
Japan, engaged in a bitter territorial dispute with China, used the anniversary to urge Beijing to respect human rights and the rule of law. “We expect positive movements from China,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay on Tuesday called on China to reveal the truth about what had happened 25 years ago.
The run-up to the anniversary has also been marked by tighter controls on the Internet, including disruption of Google services, and tougher than normal censorship of the popular Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo.