A bewildering level of security surrounded Tiananmen Square yesterday, with thousands of plain-clothes officials, uniformed police, and soldiers patrolling the vast plaza as China uneasily marked 20 years since the crackdown on the Beijing pro-democracy movement.
Yet there is not really anyone left to protest in the Chinese capital – all of the main dissidents and democracy activists are in exile, in prison, have been told to leave Beijing, or are dead.
The area was, in theory, open to the public but passing through tight security around the square, where the same kind of tents were used to screen visitors during the Olympic Games last year, this correspondent was blocked when identified as a journalist and his companion was rudely jostled. Moments later, he was prevented from shooting video footage of the square from the nearby road.
Government censors maintained their blackout of social networking and image-sharing websites such as Twitter and Flickr, and every time CNN news went to its reporter in Tiananmen, the screen went black.
There is no doubt that China has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Market reforms have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and transformed the country into the world's third largest economy. This has won widespread public approval, making protests on the same scale as in 1989 highly unlikely today.
But yesterday the authorities were taking no chances on a repeat performance. Some of the police on duty were specially trained, plain-clothed officers trained in kung fu and wearing earphones and red badges. Non-security forces were in a definite minority; at times it felt as if the ratio of military personnel to civilians was even higher than 20 years ago.
Xu Jue, part of the Tiananmen Mothers group, whose son Wu Xiangdong was killed in the massacre, said she had planned to attend a memorial service with Ding Zilin, whose son Jiang Jielian, 17, also died. "We wanted to go to Muxidi to show respect and hold a small memorial ceremony for our sons. But those people just do not allow me to go anywhere. It has lasted for four days," she said during a rare moment where her phone was working. "Right now, my home phone works. But I am not sure for how long. We do not have basic human rights. I will keep trying. I am a 70-year-old woman now. I hope the international world can give us some help," she said.
According to data gathered by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group, 65 activists have been subjected to harassment from officials to prevent them from organising or taking part in activities to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre.
To Beijing's irritation, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called on China to release all those still imprisoned in connection with the protests, to stop harassing those who took part and to begin a dialogue with the victims' families.
"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," she said in a statement.
In Hong Kong, which enjoys a high degree of political autonomy, tens of thousands of people took part in a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park.
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