In Tiananmen Square, silence blankets 25th anniversary of massacre

June 4, 2014 at 8:46 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Twenty-five years ago, pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were massacred in a government crackdown that captured the world’s attention.

But inside China itself, the incident garnered little attention.

And, as Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News reports, that hasn’t changed.

MAN: Suddenly, the soldiers broke ranks, raking the students with automatic gunfire as they charged forward. The unarmed students had no hope. Many fell wounded or dead, their bicycles crashing beside them.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: It is an event the Chinese officially still call a counterrevolutionary riot, hundreds, if not thousands, shot or bayoneted or crushed by the People’s Liberation Army.

And no image of that pro-democracy movement is as iconic as this, a defiant lone protester, never identified, his fate still unknown after 25 years. These days Tiananmen Square is the center of the world’s biggest consumer market, what happened here pretty much airbrushed from history.

The scandal of corruption still threatens China’s one-party state, but not much else does. Even the cemeteries where the Tiananmen dead lie were blocked by police today. Try searching the massacre date online and access to information is denied. In this surveillance society, those who do remember know it is safer to forget.

MAN (through interpreter): Making a fuss about it for such a long time is meaningless, because China’s system is different from the West. The population is huge, 1.4 billion. So if you want to govern it well, it is not easy.

HU JIA, Chinese Dissident: I have been under house arrest for 99 days.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Hu Jia witnessed Tiananmen as a teenager. Now this notorious political activist is under house arrest again, sending Channel 4 news this video, despite the plainclothes policeman dozing outside his door. And though he can’t mark this anniversary in the square himself, he believes change will come.

HU JIA (through interpreter): We have to go through what happened in the square, like what happened in the Soviet Union, like the Arab spring. The Communist Party is really worried. They have arrested a lot of people and they are under an incredible amount of pressure.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In Hong Kong, though, freedom still manages to flower. Tonight’s annual vigil was attended by 100,000 or more, mainland Chinese flocking to the only city where a demonstration like this would be allowed.

There’s been no official inquiry into what happened 25 years ago. But here, at least, the flame of remembrance burns brightly.