Police keep lid on Tiananmen

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It was a day when the Peking police were prepared for anything - even a taxi going up in flames. At just before 4pm in Tiananmen Square yesterday a plume of smoke suddenly rose from the road running along the west side of the huge square and China's security forces sprang into action.

Just in case any Peking residents were still tempted to venture out into the night, however, the main state television station pulled out all the stops for the regular weekend foreign- film broadcast. The offering was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, dubbed into Chinese.

The square was already ringed with police vans, cars and jeeps for the sixth anniversary of the 4 June 1989 military assault, when hundreds died. Instead of the regular Sunday crowd of kite-flyers, up to 1,000 uniformed and plainclothes security officials were on patrol yesterday. At the sight of the smoke, a marked police car sped straight across the square, with a pick-up truck in rapid pursuit. Two fire-engines approached from the north-west corner, only to be beaten to the scene by a water-tanker.

Within minutes, the burnt-out taxi had been doused with water and was being loaded on to the pick-up truck. Interested onlookers were sharply moved on by the officers, and several Chinese "tourists" started speaking urgently into walkie-talkies.

One Western student was stopped because she had taken a photograph of the wreck being removed. A team of blue-suited street-sweepers swiftly appeared to clear up the debris.

We were too late to see what had caused the fire. There was no sign of the driver by the time the flames were quelled, nor of any collision.

But there was no mistaking the determination of the police to ensure that nothing disturbed the peace on the most sensitive anniversary in the Chinese political calendar.

Since Friday night, a security net had been tightened around the Chinese capital. Nevertheless, at least two people managed to make their feelings known in public yesterday.

At last night's flag-lowering ceremony in Tiananmen Square, an unidentified protester threw handfuls of small pieces of paper into the air, before being bundled away by police. The gesture was apparently a symbolic offering of "paper money", which is traditional at Chinese funerals.

In a more direct challenge to the Chinese government, a leading dissident, Chen Ziming, staged a one-day hunger strike at his Peking home, where he has been under virtual house arrest since being released on parole last year on medical grounds from his 13-year prison sentence. Mr Chen was jailed as one of the main figures behind the 1989 pro-democracy movement. In his first public statement since leaving prison, he issued an open letter at the weekend demanding the release of political prisoners.

Around the university district of Peking, roadblocks were in place by Saturday afternoon, and foreigners were forbidden to approach the campuses. But, according to the Xinhua news agency, there was little need for such precautions. The students spent Saturday night dancing or studying.