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World Focus: Twenty-four years on, China marks Tiananmen Square anniversary – with silence


“Today”. “Tomorrow”. “That year”. “That day”. “Special day”. “Massacre”. “Big Yellow Duck”.

All of these words are banned on Sina Weibo, China’s version of the banned social networking website Twitter, along with various combinations of June, fourth, 1989, and the numbers six and four. China’s “Great Firewall” is nothing if not thorough.

Internet censors have clamped down this week even tighter on online exchanges and information about the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 4 June, 1989, which killed hundreds. That the words “Today” and “Tomorrow” would feature in a banned list of words is a sign of the lengths authorities are willing to go to prevent discussion which could challenge the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

But the growing use of Weibo and other social media has made it difficult for authorities to control all information about the crackdown on Tiananmen Square.

The phrase “big yellow ducks” refers to a giant sculpture currently occupying Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, which has captured China’s public imagination. The yellow ducks symbolise the tanks which rolled down Beijing’s Cangan Boulevard on 5 June 1989, and images of them initially managed to go unnoticed by China’s censors. 

At noon today, the vast square at the heart of Beijing was full of camera-toting tourists, as two large screens beamed images of China as a thriving world power. Most of the visitors to Tiananmen Square faced away from the area where the tanks rolled in 24 years previously to disperse the pro-democracy protesters who had camped out for weeks on the vast concourse.

Instead, they looked towards the giant portrait of Mao Zedong which sits in front of the Forbidden City. In 1989, during the student-led protests, the portrait had a paint bomb thrown at it. Today, it was pristine.

Two SWAT teams and groups of plain clothes police officers betrayed the heavy security presence around the square, but that is not wholly unusual in the heart of Beijing, close to the seat of power for the Communist leadership.

China is a richer, freer place than it was in 1989, but it has never truly come to terms with what happened on “that day”. The Chinese government has never fully disclosed the course of events that led to so many deaths, and has instead labelled the protests a “counter-revolutionary riot”.

Today, activists took to Weibo to urge the public to wear black on the anniversary in a small act of defiance. Few were evident at Tiananmen Square, perhaps hardly surprising given that most young people are barely aware of the massacre. One young woman in her 20s told me how she only heard about the crackdown at university because the brother of one her classmates had been involved.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people held a candlelit vigil in a park to urge China to respect human rights. The annual vigil in the former British colony is regarded as a symbol of the island’s relative freedom. But for those in mainland China who were involved, Tiananmen Square is a suppressed yet powerful memory.

Relatives blame employers for fire

Relatives of workers killed when fire engulfed a poultry processing plant in rural north-east China have clashed with police as they demanded answers to one of China’s worst industrial disasters.

Employers at the plant have been accused of locking the doors of the factory in Dehui, preventing employees from escaping from the fire on Monday. Zhao Zhenchun, whose wife and sister were among the 120 killed in the fire, said managers were to blame.

“I don’t think safety was being managed properly. This should never happen again. They paid the price with their blood. So many of these big disasters in China are caused by lax supervision.” Reuters