Chinese activists and parents of victims quietly marked the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests here on Friday, amid an increased security presence in the heart of Beijing and persisting restrictions on the media from discussing the sensitive anniversary.

On June 4 1989, hundreds of pro-democracy students and protesting ordinary citizens were killed in and around the square and in the streets of Beijing, when China’s ruling Communist Party ordered the military to crack down and open fire on protesters.

Twenty-one years on, reporting or discussing the event is still out of bounds for China’s State-controlled media, while for many young Chinese, the anniversary means little, finding no mention in today’s school textbooks and fading in relevance.

Officially, the Communist Party still describes the crackdown as the suppression of a “counter-revolutionary” riot, a categorisation that rankles with relatives of victims, who say ordinary citizens and students were killed.

On Friday, a group known as the Tiananmen Mothers reiterated their annual call for a public inquiry and the prosecution of those responsible for the deaths. “Can it be that you really want to wear us all down or wait for our deaths so that the problem will naturally disappear?” the group said in its annual letter addressed to the Communist Party, which bore 128 signatures.

In a far western corner of Beijing, Ding Zilin, one of the Tiananmen Mothers, carried out a small candlelight remembrance at the spot where her son was killed during the military crackdown. Media were kept away from the event, the Associated Press reported.

The Communist Party officially maintains that it has drawn a line over the events of 1989 and “come to a clear conclusion”, arguing that the two decades of development since 1989 have since reduced the event’s significance for the ordinary Chinese. “The development path chosen has been in the clear interest of the Chinese people,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said at a regular briefing, when asked about the anniversary.

Yet a tight security presence around Tiananmen Square on Friday, with plainclothes police officers patrolling the square and armed Swat teams stationed around nearby street corners, suggested the authorities were still wary of possible protests, however unlikely, on the sensitive anniversary.

No references in newspapers

Any references to the anniversary were absent in Chinese newspapers on Friday, with persisting restrictions barring the media from discussing the event. Rights activists in Beijing and Shanghai told The Hindu that several activists had been effectively placed under house arrest, amid increased monitoring on dissidents on Thursday and Friday.

In Hong Kong, where the media enjoy greater freedom, thousands attended a vigil to mark the anniversary. The South China Morning Post newspaper called on Beijing to conduct a public inquiry in a strongly-worded editorial. “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.

The one newspaper in China that discussed the event, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, came under immediate censure from the authorities. The newspaper published a cartoon on June 1, children’s day in China, showing a student drawing on a blackboard the image of a man standing in front of three tanks, invoking the iconic ‘Tank Man’ image from 1989. The cartoon was almost immediately deleted from the newspaper’s website.

Coded references on the net

Given restrictions on the media in China, discussions of the event here were more furtive, taking place on the Internet in message-boards and blogs, and using coded references to evade the censors. Methods of evasion ranged from the simple reworking of phrases to the more sophisticated use of technology to “scale the Great Firewall”, as the restrictions on the Internet in China are popularly known.

For instance, many discussions referred to the events of “May 35th” – avoiding the use of June 4, which would trigger the attention of censors. Others turned to social networking websites like Twitter, which are increasingly being widely accessed by young Chinese using proxy servers, underscoring the limits of censorship.

Wang Dan, a student leader from 1989, called for “the largest mass gathering in 21 years” to take place on Twitter, used by an estimated 100,000 Chinese, where thousands left messages of remembrance.

“We have been silent, but we have not forgotten,” wrote activist Teng Biao. “We are survivors of a massacre. Remembering is a survivor’s duty.”

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