BEIJING (Reuters) - China marks 20 years on Thursday since the bloody June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square, but the day is likely to pass largely peacefully, with troops and police ready to stifle unrest.
Tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square before dawn on June 4, 1989, to crush weeks of student and worker protests around the landmark. The ruling Communist Party has never released a death toll and fears any commemoration of the crackdown could undermine its hold on power.
The China of 20 years ago is very different from that of today. A booming economy on the back of market-driven reforms has put money in hundreds of millions of people’s pockets.
The 1989 killings severely bruised relations between Washington and Beijing, and there were echoes of those tensions on the eve of the anniversary.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded on Wednesday that China account for those killed. Clinton also urged China to release those still imprisoned over the protests.
“A China that has made enormous progress economically and is emerging to take its rightful place in global leadership should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal,” Clinton said in a statement.
In a sign of Beijing’s mix of confidence and caution, Tiananmen Square was open to visitors early on Thursday, but with hundreds of police and guards present. On the 10th anniversary of the crackdown in 1999, the square was closed to the public.
Chinese crowded the square to watch the dawn flag-raising ceremony that is now a fixture of official patriotic ritual. Many were visitors from outside Beijing and appeared oblivious to the sensitive date. There were no gestures of protest.
That hasn’t stopped authorities from blocking access to popular Internet services Twitter, online photo sharing service Flickr, as well as briefly to email provider Hotmail. Foreign newscasts about the anniversary have been cut.
“The leaders would rather just avoid this topic,” said Zhang Boshu, a philosopher in Beijing who has urged a public reckoning with the killings. “They know that the 1989 crackdown, shooting their own citizens, was a terrible blow to their legitimacy.”
Dissidents have been detained or harassed, including Zeng Jinyan, wife of detained AIDS activist Hu Jia, prompting anger from rights groups. Mothers of some of the dead were prevented from leaving their homes to commemorate their children.
Thousands of people in Hong Kong are expected to attend a candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims, as they do every year, and in Taiwan activists will likewise mark the anniversary.
While mention of the crackdown is taboo in Chinese media, dissidents have again been trying to get the government to reassess its official verdict on the incident, which is that it was a counter-revolutionary plot.
“The basic facts of what happened at that time have not changed. The nature of this tragedy has not changed either. It remains a bloody massacre of peaceful civilians,” the Tiananmen Mothers, who campaign for a full accounting of June 4, said in an open letter last week.
This year’s anniversary comes as the economy is slowing on the back of the global financial crisis, eliminating jobs especially in export-dependent coastal regions and making it harder for new graduates to find work.
The government has reacted quickly to the crisis, unveiling a 4 trillion yuan ($585.8 billion) stimulus package and a series of other measures to tackle rising joblessness.
“I don’t think students would go to the streets to demonstrate against the Chinese government in the same way as the students of the 1980s,” said Bo Zhiyue, a researcher of Chinese politics expert at Singapore’s East Asian Institute.