Friday, June 04, 2010

A quiet day on Tiananmen Square

It was a quiet day on Tiananmen Square today, a scene very different from 21 years ago when the army moved against pro-democracy demonstrators which left hundreds dead. Any protest would have been swiftly dealt with however. Anyone entering Tiananmen Square was subject to a body search and all bags had to be sent through X-Ray machines. Such measures have been in place for months, but there was also a higher than usual police presence.

Armed police SWAT teams could be spotted to the south of the square while soldiers and regular police patrols kept a watchful eye in the main square itself. However despite being surveyed by countless cameras and no doubt dozens of plain clothes security officials, the atmosphere was far from tense. Tourists gathered under umbrellas to protect themselves from the summer sun and temperatures well into the 30s. Visitors to the square posed for photographs and it seemed just like any other day in central Beijing.

In fact the security was much less than seen in previous years. Last year plain clothes officers swarmed the square preventing filming by foreign television crews. But while an Associated Press cameraman was allowed to film Friday, there is not the same interest in the anniversary this year. Ten and twenty year anniversaries gain far more attention than the random years in between. Nonetheless, authorities in China still keep a lid on any dissent or talk about the so-called Tiananmen Square massacre. 

A cartoon which was published by the Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper on Wednesday showing a young schoolboy drawing a picture on a blackboard that appeared to be a pastiche of the famous “tank man” picture from 1989 was quickly withdrawn. It had been published by the Guangzhou-based paper as part of a World Children’s Day feature but it obviously rattled some nerves in official circles [Telegraph blog]. 

The Internet which saw a particular tightening during last year's anniversary has changed little. Sites that were blocked such as Twitter, Facebook and Blogger remained so. Search terms that are off-limits also returned the usual error, though Google's new secure [https] search engine was available and enabled easier searches for Tiananmen Square related enquiries.

While protests are allowed to proceed relatively unhindered in Hong Kong, mainland China hopes people will forget. This is unlikely to happen. The Mothers of Tiananmen continue to press for the truth. But any action is hidden from public view. 

On Thursday night in Beijing, the leader of the Tiananmen Mothers' group held a brief candlelight vigil at the spot in western Beijing where her son was killed in the crackdown. However a line of police kept the media away, and Ding Zilin and her husband were surrounded by strangers who appeared to be blocking any filming of the event. "I didn't know any of them," the husband, Jiang Jielian, said afterward by phone. "We went there alone."

Even after 21 years it is difficult to determine how many died in what has become known as the Tiananmen Square massacre. The official figure is 241 dead, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded. The highest estimate as declared by the then Soviet Union is 10,000 dead made up from both civilians and soldiers. A PLA [Peoples' Liberation Army] defector, citing a document circulating among officers, claimed 3,700 had died. Hundreds most certainly perished. Others were persecuted, many fleeing to other countries. Some still remain locked up, languishing in Chinese prisons.
The failure of the Chinese government to come clean and to straighten out its record on human rights continues to weigh heavy on its international image. Bloggers and those calling for reform are still locked up, merely for asking for change. On Christmas Day last year Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years for organising a movement called Charter 08 which called for reform.

The South China Morning Post urged Beijing to reconsider its position on the 1989 protests in an editorial published Friday. "The crackdown will not be forgotten. Beijing should have the courage to deal with it openly, fairly and compassionately, so that June 4 no longer casts a shadow over China's achievements."

This is unlikely to happen any time soon. Jiang Yu, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, reiterated the government's position on the 1989 protests. "About the political issue you mentioned ... there has already been a clear conclusion," she said, "The development path chosen has been in the clear interest of the Chinese people." [Washington Post]

There was a clear reminder of the path the Chinese people should follow in Tiananmen Square on Friday. A large electronic screen displayed a message which read, "Unswervingly follow the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics and courageously advance" [坚定不移地沿着中国特色社会主义道路奋勇前进]. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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