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China: Remembering Tiananmen 25 years on

As an IT entrepreneur, Zhang Lei often thinks about the future. But these days he's reflecting on the past; Zhang was a student in Beijing on June 4, 1989, when the government cracked down on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square.

"[At the time] I made calls to my classmates to find out the latest and ask about their safety," Zhang said from his office in the Chinese capital. "I felt just how big of a change and a turning point it was. This event will be something that a generation of Chinese will never forget."

In the weeks leading up to the 1989 crackdown thousands of students marched to Tiananmen Square calling for a more democratic government. The demonstrations quickly attracted citizens from all walks of life, ballooning to an estimated 1.2 million. Then on June 4th, Chinese troops fired on protesters, killing, by unofficial accounts, anywhere from hundreds to thousands.

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"Everybody was scared. They didn't know where the government was going. They were still rounding up people. It was a very tense time," said James McGregor, China chairman of consultancy APCO Worldwide, who worked as the bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal from 1990 to 1994.

"I used to ride my bicycle around and talk to people at night in the dark. That's when they will talk to you because they were anonymous," he added.

Twenty-five years later the ruling Communist Party remains tense about that day. The days around the anniversary are always politically sensitive, with dissidents routinely detained to silence any discussion of the 1989 protests. On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, however, the security apparatus is in overdrive. Even journalists have been warned not to report from the square.

A Chinese officer stands guard under a portrait of the late Mao Zeding outside the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square on June 2, 2014.
Kevin Frayer | Getty Images
A Chinese officer stands guard under a portrait of the late Mao Zeding outside the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square on June 2, 2014.

In many ways China is a different place now. After 1989, leaders pushed through economic reforms, opening the country to the world. The economy – the world's second largest – is almost unrecognizable. Chinese drive foreign-branded cars and drink lattes -- and people like Zhang are free to start their own businesses. His company develops apps for the high tech wireless industry.

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"I understand the government and officials. They want to be safe - to have a continuation of power and stability in China," Zhang said. "At the same time, as citizens we also feel there are problems under the political system."

Protests now focus on issues such as the environment, land and ethnic rights. Dissenting views occur more online than in city squares. The government's response has been tighter control over the internet, dissidents, and unrest.

"Tiananmen is just another piece of baggage. The Party doesn't want to talk about that. It's still dragging behind, and they are running as fast as they can away from it. It will catch up someday," McGregor said. "They are hoping, I think, that they are strong enough at that time that the Party can weather that."

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Until then, Zhang says his generation will remain haunted by the government's silence.

"That event, in one way, did end. People died, things calmed down, and it seems that what followed was prosperity and peace for China," Zhang said. "However, at the same time, it brought with it a lot of negative consequences. And as long as these exist, that event will never truly end."

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