Image: Security at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
Guang Niu  /  Getty Images
Security was tight in Beijing's Tiananmen Square Wednesday as activists around the world marked the 19th anniversary of a deadly crackdown targeting pro-democracy protesters.
updated 6/4/2008 11:47:04 AM ET 2008-06-04T15:47:04

Security forces kept a close watch on Beijing's Tiananmen Square during Wednesday's anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, amid renewed calls for the release of political prisoners ahead of this year's Beijing Summer Olympics.

No public commemorations of the protests were held and there were few reminders of the events of 19 years ago. Instead, the square, like the rest of the Chinese capital, was adorned with symbols of the upcoming Olympics.

Exiled dissidents and human rights groups have sought to link the two events, saying releasing political prisoners and allowing exiled student leaders to return would burnish the Communist government's image before the Olympic spotlight turns on Beijing.

At access points to Tiananmen Square, police and other security officers searched bags for banners or leaflets containing dissident messages. Plainclothes officers used handheld video cameras to supplement the dozens of permanent mounted cameras trained on the square.

'New chapter'
Han Dongfang, formerly imprisoned for his efforts to organize workers during the '89 protests, said freeing prisoners could cement the image of current Chinese leaders as less corrupt and more people-oriented.

Such a step would "allow them to close the door on that era and inaugurate a new chapter in Chinese politics," Han, who now heads the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, wrote on the group's Web site.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of activists gathered at Victoria Park with white candles to mourn those killed at Tiananmen, chanting slogans calling for democracy and the release of political dissidents.

"Despite being awarded the Olympics, the Chinese communist government has by far not improved its human rights record," Lee Chuek-Yan, a lawmaker and pro-democracy activist, told demonstrators, estimated by organizers at around 48,000.

Taboo subject
Discussion of the student movement and the June 3-4 military assault on the protesters in which hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed remains taboo within China. The Communist leadership labeled the protest an anti-government riot and has never offered a full accounting of the crackdown.

Human Rights Watch has also urged China to free Tiananmen prisoners to show "the global Olympic audience it's serious about human rights." The New York-based group said about 130 prisoners are still being held for their role in the demonstrations, involving tens of thousands of students and others, that started in Tiananmen Square and spread to several major cities.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department urged China to make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing in the crackdown. It called on the international community to urge China to release prisoners still serving sentences from the protests.

The U.S. said Chinese steps to protect freedoms of its citizens would help "achieve its goal of projecting a positive image to the world."

China pledged to improve its human rights situation when bidding to host the 2008 Olympics. But one Tiananmen activist, whose son was killed as he hid from soldiers enforcing martial law, scoffed when asked whether the August games had spurred the government to change its attitude.

"I don't have this kind of illusion," said Ding Zilin, co-founder of Tiananmen Mothers, a group representing families of those who died. She has campaigned to get the government to acknowledge those killed in the crackdown and compensate their families for the deaths.

American John Kamm, who regularly campaigns for the release of Chinese political prisoners, said with the steady completion of their sentences, only about 60-100 people remained in prison on charges related to the '89 protests.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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