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BEIJING (Reuters) - Tiananmen Square was quiet on Monday and China's media was silent on the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that took place there 18 years ago to the day, but rights groups said it would not be forgotten.
People's Liberation Army troops and tanks crushed the student-led demonstrations in the historic Beijing square on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds, possibly thousands.
"I want to tell those who claim that Tiananmen 'belongs to another era' that, behind the high, barbed-wire-ringed walls of the Chinese prisons, Tiananmen prisoners are still suffering," the Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in an e-mailed statement, quoting an unnamed former prisoner of conscience.
Then Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang was toppled for opposing the crackdown and the government labeled the protests "counter-revolutionary", or subversive, a judgment it has resisted calls to overturn.
Bao Tong, a top aide of Zhao's, told Reuters that China could never forget the events of 1989.
"To forget June 4 is a national humiliation," he said in a rare interview at his apartment. "June 4 was a tragedy not just for China but for the whole of mankind. We will still be talking about June 4 in 1,000 years time ..., " Bao added.
At the Zhao family courtyard compound, where he lived under house arrest until his death in 2005, the usual security presence was in place.
"You can't come in. The higher-ups said so," said a guard.
Tiananmen Square itself was full of the usual tour groups, both Chinese and foreign, and locals flying kites, as well as plainclothes security and police vans.
At its north end, in front of the giant portrait of Mao Zedong, police surrounded a woman and rifled through her bag before bundling her off in the back of a van, a sign of the tight rein China keeps on petitioners and protesters.
Despite the pressing need for activists to remember the events, the silence within China on the period means many have little knowledge of the Tiananmen movement.
One vendor surnamed Zhang, hawking copies of Mao's Little Red Book, at first said he had no idea of the sensitive anniversary, only recalling after some prompting.
"I know what you mean," he said finally. "But I come here every day and there's nothing like that now."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," said another woman, 26, visiting from the southern city of Xiamen with her husband and toddler.
The only hint of the date in China's tightly controlled media as a piece on Saturday in the China Youth Daily commending the heroic police who ensure public order and safety on the square.
There were some signs of easing, amid the tight controls.
Ding Zilin, who leads the pressure group Tiananmen Mothers, was allowed for the first time to lay flowers where her son was shot and hold a brief memorial ceremony, said the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
In Hong Kong, tens of thousands were expected to turn out for an evening candle-lit vigil, as they do each year.
The Tiananmen issue shot back into public attention in the former British colony last month after pro-Beijing politician Ma Lik said the crackdown "was not a massacre", prompting a sharp rebuke from dissidents.
Exiled activist Wu'er Kaixi wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Ma's comments and the reaction to them showed that 1989 "can still arouse powerful emotions".
"For me, these reactions underscore the fact that, no matter how vital China has become to (the) world economy and how much it has changed with the times, the Tiananmen knot cannot be unraveled either by ignoring the truth, playing with semantics or denying it happened," he wrote.
Key figures have been silenced at home or forced into exile abroad since 1989, but voices for reform have mutated into a crusade involving a new generation of civil rights campaigners.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim