Time stands still as China contemplates pivotal moment on Tiananmen Square

A lot has changed for China in 20 years, but time seems to stand still when it comes to the stunning events of June 4, 1989.

A lot has changed for China in 20 years, but time seems to stand still when it comes to the stunning events of June 4, 1989.

To this day, the deadly military assault to remove pro-democracy student demonstrators from Tiananmen Square remains a subject that's strictly taboo in China.

Now as 20 years ago, there's no consensus on how many died as the Chinese army fought its way through protesters and barricades blocking them from reaching the symbolic heart of Beijing.

Various official and unofficial death tolls have surfaced, but they differ so widely that all are viewed with skepticism.

The Chinese Red Cross was said to have reported 2,600 deaths initially but later denied ever giving the figure. One government count puts the toll at 241 dead and 7,000 wounded, including security forces personnel. Other estimates put the number of dead into the thousands - thus the inconclusive refrain in western media reports that "hundreds, possibly thousands" lost their lives. The media in China, on the other hand, hardly ever mention the incident.

As far as the Chinese government is concerned, the protesters were unruly mobs rebelling against law and order. The official verdict: it was - and still is - a counter-revolutionary riot that had to be put down for the good of the nation.

Without such stern measures, the government argues, China would not have had the stability to make the remarkable progress it has enjoyed over the last two decades as a rising world power.

Supporters of the Chinese government advise people to let bygones be bygones, but pro-democracy advocates refuse to relegate their movement to history.

"We will never forget, we will never give up," Wang Dan, one of the most hunted Tiananmen student leaders, told a forum Sunday in Toronto. He flew in for the commemorative event attended by about 500 people.

"June 4 is still going on," Wang told the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao. "There are people still in prison because of June 4."

Wang himself spent five years in prison after the 1989 demonstrations were crushed. He moved to the United States after he was paroled on medical grounds.

"I'm not the only one who thinks June 4 isn't over," he said. "Just look at how China tightens up everything at this time every year - it hasn't been consigned to history."

The ideals of the pro-democracy movement left an indelible mark on Canadians, the Chinese Canadian National Council said in a statement commemorating the anniversary.

"We condemn the violence and deaths, and mourn the victims," CCNC national president Colleen Hua said Tuesday.

"This important anniversary serves to remind all of us of our role as global citizens to uphold the universal values of human rights and social justice."

In commemorations held outside the Chinese mainland, a key demand has always been that China should admit the crackdown was a mistake. Supporters of the democracy movement want their efforts to be re-assessed as legitimate and patriotic.

The same demands have been made for 20 years - all to no avail.

In the spring of 1989, Tiananmen Square was occupied by students seeking more accountability in government. With a long list of grievances, they agitated for reforms that amounted to handing more power to the people.

Tens of thousands of students turned the sprawling square at China's political nerve centre into a teeming tent city.

They struggled to govern themselves amid chaos and idealism, contending not only with keeping the authorities at bay but also a host of sanitation and administrative problems from a large and fluid population.

They put up a Goddess of Democracy statue, staring at Communist party Chairman Mao Zedong's portrait atop the front gate of the Forbidden City.

There was a stalemate even after martial law was declared, as sympathetic Beijing residents helped students stall advancing military convoys on the outskirts.

Both sides exhibited restraint at first, but with the military seemingly bogging down and unrest flaring in other Chinese cities, the central government issued the final order to clear the square.

Some Chinese officials fiercely dispute reports that a bloodbath had happened on Tiananmen Square itself. But there is no doubt that soldiers opened fire with live bullets as they moved though Beijing toward the square on the night of June 3. Those killed and wounded were from all walks of life, not just students.

Armoured vehicles smashed through commandeered streetcars and other obstacles placed on the wide boulevards to block their way. Some residents fought back with Molotov cocktails and dismantled roadside barriers, setting military vehicles on fire.

When dawn came on June 4, thick plumes of smoke were rising over Beijing. The students were gone from Tiananmen Square. Their Goddess of Democracy had been toppled.

Tanks and troops were arrayed in combat formations to secure the perimeter of the square. Onlookers were warned to stay away. When groups of civilians approached, they were shot on the spot.

It was learned later that some of the high-profile student leaders had escaped abroad. Others went underground but many, like Wang, were captured and jailed.

Some parents would not be silenced in their search for their missing children, or for justice for those who died. From them came a partial, incomplete picture of the scale of the upheaval that night - at the price of thwarted careers, withdrawn benefits and other retributions.

And as the anniversary approaches each year, government surveillance against them intensifies. Authorities make sure they are either out of the city or otherwise unavailable to speak to inquisitive reporters.

"The prominent leaders of the Tiananmen Mothers group, Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun, are frequently subjected to police harassment and arbitrary detention," Amnesty International said Monday.

This, too, had changed little in 20 years.

Amnesty cited non-governmental organizations in estimating that "at least 20 and maybe as many as 200 individuals remain in detention for their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests."

The human-rights group wants China's legislature, the National Peoples Congress, to call for an official account of all those who died or were imprisoned.

 
 
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