BEIJING (AFP) – Thousands of Chinese and foreign tourists flocked to Tiananmen Square on Saturday, the anniversary of the deadly 1989 crackdown on mass pro-democracy protests, amid a noticeable police presence.
The sensitive anniversary of the brutal June 4 army action in the heart of Beijing comes as the Chinese government wages its toughest clampdown on dissent in years, rounding up dozens of lawyers, writers and artists in recent months.
Visitors clutching cameras and umbrellas poured through security checkpoints into the giant square but many shied away from answering questions about the date or denied any knowledge of the events that took place 22 years ago.
A university student surnamed Li from Inner Mongolia in north China — where protests erupted late last month — said he was too young to remember the 1989 pro-democracy movement but had heard about it.
“I’ve heard adults talking about it. It was a university students’ protest movement,” Li, 24, told AFP as he strolled around the square where demonstrators rallied for weeks for democratic reform before the army’s deadly intervention.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are believed to have died when the government sent in tanks and soldiers to clear the square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.
An official verdict after the protests called them a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” although the wording has since been softened.
An AFP journalist saw a number of plainclothes police wearing earpieces and carrying walkie-talkies wandering around the square as tourists posed for photographs in front of a portrait of Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
A retired man from the northeastern city of Changchun told AFP he “didn’t know” about the anniversary, before walking away.
American tourist Sue Lorenz, 61, said she knew about the significance of June 4.
“It was the anniversary of the Tiananmen standoff between the students and the military,” Lorenz told AFP before several police intervened and stopped the interview.
Rights groups including New York-based Human Rights Watch have repeated calls for China to be held accountable for its past and present actions, but Beijing on Thursday reiterated its position that the matter was closed.
“As for the political turbulence that took place in the last century in the late 1980s, the Communist Party and government have already made a conclusion,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
China attempts to block any public discussion or remembrance of the events by hiding away key dissidents in the run-up to June 4 each year, taking them into custody or placing them under house arrest, friends and activists say.
Those taken away this week include Bao Tong, a former top aide to Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party head who was purged for opposing the use of force in June 1989.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders said Bao and his wife were taken away by security officials on June 1 and their location was not known.
Since mid-February, as protests spread across the Arab world leading to the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, Chinese authorities have detained dozens of lawyers, activists and dissidents in an ongoing clampdown on dissent.
Earlier this week, activists said Chinese police had for the first time raised the possibility of compensation for the families of those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.
The Tiananmen Mothers group said in an annual open letter this week that police have twice met relatives of one victim beginning in February.
The letter said, however, that police did not discuss a formal apology for the killings or a public account of who ordered the shootings — two of the group’s long-standing demands.