BEIJING (AFP) — Authorities in China are bracing for the 20th anniversary of the deadly June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, a pivotal moment that still haunts the nation.
The way the government will likely mark the sensitive date on Thursday -- with deafening silence -- shows it is keenly aware of the emotional scars that remain after the army ended six weeks of peaceful rallies in central Beijing.
China's Communist leaders have made any discussion of the brutal quelling of the student-led demonstrations -- in which hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed -- taboo, but dissidents say the public could yet hold them accountable.
"People remember this date because they want the Communist Party to take responsibility for the crimes it committed," said 53-year-old Qi Zhiyong, who lost a leg after being shot by troops near Tiananmen Square.
"It reminds them the party will resort to unbridled violence whenever it feels threatened."
In a bid not to rankle the wary authorities, the main public commemoration planned for Thursday will probably be silent.
Activist groups have called on citizens simply to wear white -- the traditional colour of mourning -- to honour those killed in the mayhem that erupted when tanks and troops rolled in to crush the protests.
The year 1989 was a disastrous one for communism across the globe and in China the ruling party found itself in a struggle with democracy activists who challenged its authoritarian rule over the world's most populous nation.
The Tiananmen movement began in mid-April, when public grief over the death of former party leader and popular reformer Hu Yaobang gradually morphed into bold calls from students for political reform and steps to combat corruption.
Young students started to occupy Tiananmen Square, the symbolic centre of political power in China. A sense of euphoria saturated the plaza as they took part in rallies no one would have thought possible just weeks earlier.
"There were banners everywhere. This was the first unauthorised political demonstration in the (history of the) People's Republic of China," recalled one of the student leaders, Wang Dan.
Calls for democracy and freedom filled the square, thousands went on hunger strike, and one charismatic activist, Wu'er Kaixi, brazenly challenged Premier Li Peng during a meeting broadcast live on state television.
Indeed, the whole world was watching, as news crews from around the globe gathered in Beijing to cover the historic visit by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, only to stumble upon an event that would be far more significant.
In the corridors of power, the protests drove a wedge between hardline leaders led by Premier Li and moderates headed by Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang.
The hardliners won, with patriarch Deng Xiaoping, China's most powerful man, tilting the balance in their favour. Zhao was removed from his post as party leader and spent 16 years under house arrest until his death in 2005.
The student movement was declared a "counterrevolutionary rebellion", and soldiers of the People's Liberation Army descended on the capital, crushing the democratic dreams of an entire generation.
The number of people killed in the night of June 3-4 remains a mystery. China's official death toll is 241, including 36 students. Dissidents say thousands may have died.
The crackdown set off a wave of condemnation across the globe, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah, as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.
The international community has long since welcomed China back into the fold, and Beijing's communist leaders have cemented their hold on power, transforming the country into the world's number three economy.
But they have shown no willingness to change their position that the protests threatened Communist Party rule and had to be quelled in order to maintain economic reforms.
"Facts have proven that the socialist road with Chinese characteristics that we pursue is in the fundamental interests of our people," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told journalists in May.
But, undeterred, victims of the crackdown have called for renewed international pressure on Beijing to reverse the official verdict on the quelling, saying failure to stand up to a rising China tacitly abets the repression.
"So far, the international community... has adopted a policy of appeasement towards the Chinese government," said Ding Zilin, 72, whose teenage son was shot dead by the army.
Bao Tong -- a former aide to Zhao who was jailed for seven years following the crackdown -- said the world has failed to push China to be more open about the events of Tiananmen because of Beijing's increasing global clout.
"Not wanting to offend China means they cannot help China, cannot help China's people attain their own rights, and cannot help the world community gain a reliable, stable, peaceful member," Bao told AFP recently.
"This is not a good thing," he added.
Bao has since been ordered to sit out the anniversary at a resort more than 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) from Beijing -- evidence that the authorities in the capital are not yet ready to reopen the Tiananmen wounds.
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