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21 years later, quiet day at Tiananmen Square

Throngs of tourists milled around Tiananmen Square under the watchful eye of security forces on alert for any attempt to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the crackdown.
Image: Tens of thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park
Tens of thousands of people attended a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on Friday. The event commemorated the 21st anniversary of the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown.Kin Cheung / AP
/ Source: news services

Throngs of tourists and kite-flyers milled around Tiananmen Square on Friday under the watchful eye of security forces on alert for any attempt to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

But in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous Chinese territory, the annual candlelight vigil drew thousands who took advantage of the freedom of speech in this former British colony. The crowd at Hong Kong's Victoria Park was large enough to fill six football pitches, though were no official estimates.

"The Chinese Communist Party is a thug. They will kill to protect their own interests," one participant, businessman Joe Jia, said.

China's government has never fully disclosed what happened when the military crushed the student-led protests on the night of June 3-4, 1989, killing hundreds or possibly more people. It has long maintained that the protests were a "counterrevolutionary riot."

Public discussion of the events or any displays referencing them remain forbidden on the mainland.

Security on Tiananmen Square is always high and Friday was no exception, though police seemed less aggressive than on the 20th anniversary. Last year, plainclothes police swarmed the square and used pastel-colored umbrellas to prevent television crews from filming. An Associated Press cameraman was allowed to film Friday.

Web service blocked
Chinese crowds gathered to watch the early morning flag-raising while others flew kites above the massive open space located in the heart of the capital.

China on Friday blocked Web service Foursquare, which lets users alert friends to where they are through their cell phones. The reason was not known, but many users had been "checking in" from Tiananmen Square to mark the anniversary.

In Hong Kong, public awareness of this year's anniversary has been high because of perceived restrictions on mourning activities in the former British colony. Hong Kong police confiscated a large statue dedicated to the Tiananmen victims last Saturday — they released it on Tuesday — and a local university banned students from placing it on their campus.

The territory's leading English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, urged Beijing to reconsider its position on the 1989 protests in an editorial Friday.

"The crackdown will not be forgotten. Beijing should have the courage to deal with it openly, fairly and compassionately, so that June 4 no longer casts a shadow over China's achievements," it said.

Citizens also took out ads in local newspapers paying tribute to the 1989 student protesters.

Residents of an apartment unit across the street from the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong displayed a black banner that said: "Exonerate the 1989 student movement."

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou urged China to learn from the crackdown and help its victims. "Not only should they learn from the painful lesson to prevent a possible recurrence of the tragedy but also take any necessary action to heal the trauma of the victims and their relatives and (correct) any unfairness," Ma said in a statement.

On Thursday night in Beijing, the leader of the Tiananmen Mothers' group held a brief candlelight vigil at the spot in western Beijing where her son was killed in the crackdown. A line of police kept the media away, and Ding Zilin and her husband were surrounded by strangers who appeared to be blocking any filming of the event.

"I didn't know any of them," her husband, Jiang Jielian, said afterward by phone. "We went there alone."

The couple has been able to hold such vigils sometimes in the past, but not for last year's 20th anniversary.

Earlier Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman reiterated the government's position on the 1989 protests.

Asked by a reporter about the demonstrations, Jiang Yu said, "About the political issue you mentioned ... there has already been a clear conclusion."

"The development path chosen has been in the clear interest of the Chinese people," she added.

Embassy arrest
Meanwhile, Japanese police arrested a leading figure from China's 1989 pro-democracy student movement on Friday after he tried to push his way into the Chinese Embassy to draw attention to a 21-year separation from his parents.

Wu'er Kaixi, 42, has not been allowed back into China since he fled the June 4, 1989, crackdown on the protest movement, and says Chinese authorities refuse to issue his parents with passports, thus preventing a reunion overseas.

He leapt over the security barrier at the embassy and tried to run in before he was caught, footage from Japanese news agency Kyodo showed. The agency said he was arrested by the Japanese police on charges of trespassing.

Kyodo also reported that he was denied access to board an Air China flight to Beijing on Thursday despite having a ticket.

As a 21-year-old hunger striker, Wu'er Kaixi rebuked then-Premier Li Peng on national television.

After the crackdown, he fled to France and then studied at Harvard University, but came under attack for his extravagant lifestyle in exile. He now works at an investment firm in Taiwan.