Foreign media were busy in the run-up to June 4, the 20th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. News organizations across the world blanketed their online and print pages with retrospectives of the incident.
A large part of the coverage highlighted the improbability of a similar protest today. The six weeks of demonstrations, which culminated in government tanks entering the square, were largely in response to poor economic conditions, rampant corruption and skyrocketing inflation. China today is an emerging economic powerhouse, and the youth in urban centers such as Beijing are some of the most direct beneficiaries of the past 20 years of economic growth.
While some commentators noted that the debate on the relationship between the government and the people – which underpinned the 1989 protests – has yet to be resolved, others suggested that this newfound wealth is a deterrent against this debate happening. Corruption and economic management remain public concerns, but they compete with issues of a more personal nature, such as securing a high-paying job or buying a home.
Nonetheless, the government was not taking any chances. Beijing enacted strict internet controls ahead of the big day. Microsoft’s Hotmail email service and web search engine Bing.com were blocked in China along with a number of social networking and blogging sites such as Twitter, Flickr and WordPress.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China detailed several incidents in which foreign journalists were prevented from reporting at Tiananmen Square. On June 4 itself, security in the square was tight, with police, soldiers and plainclothes personnel accounting for up to 70% of those in the square, according to one account.
The anniversary passed in Beijing without incident. This was in stark contrast to Hong Kong where an estimated 150,000 people – the highest number in a decade – marked the anniversary with a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. Attendance numbers would have been higher, but many people were turned away from the protest due to space limitations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made what has become her country’s annual request that the Chinese government release a public account of how many protestors were killed in the crackdown and free those who remain in prison for their role in the protests.
Her statement that the Chinese government needed to examine "the darker events of its past," drew swift criticism from Beijing. It also marked a shift for the Obama administration – which had been mostly silent on China’s human rights record since taking power.
US administrations may continue to press Beijing for answers each year, but for the media – and government – 2009 represents a unique confluence of events. By year’s end China will have also marked the 50-year anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising and the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic of China.
It may be another decade before the international media revisits Tiananmen with such fervor. By then, the events of 1989 might strike successive generations of Chinese – presumably still served by a media subject to tight government controls – as little more than ancient history.