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October 24, 2014

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Security tight in Beijing on crackdown anniversary

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

A Chinese woman takes a selfie on her mobile phone in front of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Authorities in Beijing blanketed the city center with heavy security Wednesday on the 25th anniversary of the bloody military suppression of pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square.

BEIJING — Heavy security blanketed central Beijing on Wednesday's 25th anniversary of the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, pre-empting any attempts to publicly commemorate one of the darkest chapters in recent Chinese history.

Scores of police and paramilitary troops patrolled the vast plaza in the city's heart and surrounding streets, stopping vehicles and demanding identification from passers-by. Reporters were told to leave the area following the daily crack-of-dawn flag-raising ceremony and there were no signs of demonstrations or any type of public commemoration.

Dozens of activists, dissidents and other critics have already been detained by police, held under house arrest or sent out of the city.

"I regret I can't to go to the square to pay tribute, but it warms my heart that those events and those sacrifices have not been forgotten after 25 years," said veteran activist Hu Jia, who has been under house arrest for 101 days.

Hu, who drew inspiration from the Tiananmen student movement when he was in high school, spent 3 ½ years in prison after a 2008 conviction on the vague charge of inciting state subversion and since has sporadically been confined to house arrest. He said his latest confinement has been longer and more restrictive, in an indication of the increasingly conservative political atmosphere under President Xi Jinping, who took office last year.

"Things have gotten much more severe under Xi Jinping. I could be taken away at any time, but I will stick to my principles," Hu said.

China allows no public discussion of the events of June 3-4, 1989, when soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers fought their way into the heart of the city, killing hundreds of unarmed protesters and onlookers. The government has never issued a complete, formal accounting of the crackdown or the number of casualties.

Authorities allowed relatives of some of those killed in the crackdown to visit their loved one's graves, but they had to go quietly and under police escort, according to Zhang Xianling, a member of a group that campaigns for the crackdown's victims.

"Even though 25 years is a very long time, as a relative, as a mother, it feels like this happened just yesterday," said Zhang, whose son, Wang Nan, was 19 years old when he was killed in the suppression.

"The wound is still very deep. And though we might now shed fewer tears than in the past, our conviction is even stronger," Zhang said. "We must keep struggling until the end. We must pursue justice for our loved ones."

Beijing's official verdict is that the student-led protests aimed to topple the ruling Communist Party and plunge China into chaos. Protest leaders said they were seeking broader democracy and freedom, along with an end to corruption and favoritism within the party.

Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said this year's clampdown on dissent has been exceptionally harsh. But she said that wouldn't deter calls for an open discussion about the events of 1989.

"While this repression might be temporarily successful, over the long run the government is struggling to cope with rising demands for accountability and justice," Wang said.

Activist lawyer Teng Biao said debate about the protests had found new life on China's hugely popular social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat — despite government efforts to erase sensitive content. The government's repression only betrayed its frailties and fear of dissent, Teng said.

"Although the government appears stronger, they are more fearful, less confident and have less sense of security," Teng said from Hong Kong, where he is a visiting scholar at the city's Chinese University.

Foreign media in Beijing have been warned not to meet with dissidents or report on issues related to the anniversary. In an unusual burst of activity, the Foreign Ministry and Cabinet office held news conferences and called in Associated Press reporters for meetings Wednesday.

The Tiananmen protests remain a totem for political expression and Western-style civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony which retained its own liberal social and legal systems after reverting to Chinese rule 17 years ago.

Every year the city holds a candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims that's attended by tens of thousands, with numbers rising in recent years. Organizers said they were expecting about 150,000 people to attend Wednesday night's rally in a downtown park.

For the first time, a pro-Beijing group, the Voice of Loving Hong Kong, was planning a counter-rally at the park entrance in support of the military crackdown, in a sign of increasing polarization in the former British colony.

An annual survey by the University of Hong Kong released Tuesday showed that support for the student-led protests has slipped although most still thought Beijing was wrong to condemn them.

In the telephone poll of 1,005 people conducted May 17-22, 48.5 percent of people agreed that "the Beijing students did the right thing in the June 4 incident," down from 54.1 percent a year ago.

Pollster Robert Chung said in a statement that support for the protesters was strongest among those under 30.

"This probably reflects the demand for democracy among the younger generation," he said. The survey on Hong Kong's attitudes toward the Tiananmen Square protests, which has been conducted since 1993, has a margin of error of three percentage points.

Along with concerns about political unrest, China has recently been shaken by violence blamed on separatists from the far northwestern region of Xinjiang, adding to the increased security measures.

Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Didi Tang contributed to this report from Beijing. AP writer Kelvin Chan reported from Hong Kong.

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