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Tiananmen Square: 30 Years On, And The Government Still Won't Talk About It

Three decades ago, the Chinese Government opened fire on its own civilians, killing hundreds -- or maybe thousands -- of student protesters.

The June 4 massacre was the culmination of six weeks of student protesting in Beijing in 1989.

The movement began following the death of Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary who pursued political reforms towards a more democratic, transparent state.

Hu was denounced by conservative members of the Communist Party for undermining social stability after failing to quash student demonstrations for democracy in 1986.

Source: AAP Photos

His death on April 17 spurred thousands of students to take to  the streets of Beijing, marching for freedom, democracy, transparency on the income of state leaders and the end of media censorship in China.

By mid May, 300,000 student demonstrators were gathered in Tiananmen Square, a city square at the centre of Beijing at the foot of the Forbidden City -- the former imperial Palace.

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They carried signs criticising the government and even managed to unload a 30-foot Styrofoam replica of the Statute of Liberty in the middle of the square.

The students began conducting hunger strikes, which gained a global audience of sympathisers, embarrassing the Communist Party during a diplomatic visit by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Student protesters climbing onto a tank. Source: AAP Photos.

On June 2, with more than a million people involved in the reformist tide across the country, Den Xioping, the leader of the People's Republic of China, along with other top officials, decided that action needed to be taken against what they had dubbed "counter-revolutionary protests".

Starting on the night of June 3, following a warning from state-run television telling civilians to stay indoors, the army began advancing on the square, firing expanding bullets at the protesters -- a type of ammunition prohibited for use in war by international law.

The crowds were enraged by the killings and began to attack soldiers with rocks and Molotov cocktails. The violence continued until well into the next day, when students in the square requested that the army grant them passage to leave.

Civilians were pursued by tanks and shot in the back as they fled from the square.

Source: AAP Photos.

The vicious attack what were overwhelmingly peaceful protesters shocked the world.

In Australia, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke granted political asylum to Chinese students following the massacre, which ultimately led to 42,000 permanent visas granted to Chinese nationals.

Why does China refuse to release more information about the incident?

The Communist Party has long remained quiet about Tiananmen Square.

China has been fiercely criticised internationally for failing to release details of the event and claims that they are severely underestimating the death toll in their official count.

The official statement from the Chinese government at the end of June 1989 said that 200 civilians and several dozen security personnel had died in Beijing.

Source: AAP Photos.

However, estimates from researchers, witnesses, and foreign governments vary wildly -- initial estimates from the Chinese Red Cross in 1989 suggest that 2,600 died but this number included those missing as well.

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Simply put, nobody knows how many demonstrators and soldiers were killed over the two days in June, 1989.

One British diplomatic cable published in 2017 suggests that 10,000 lost their lives in the onslaught.

Source: AAP Photos.

According to the document, which is held at the UK National Archives in London, students were told that they had one hour to leave the square but were instead given five minutes.

The report details horrific moments as the army advanced into the square.

"APCs [tanks] ran over bodies time and time again to make 'pie' and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains."

"Four wounded girl students begged or their lives but were bayoneted."

A protester being treated for wounds. Source: AAP Photos.

Tiananmen Square is scarcely mentioned by the Chinese government today and the party goes to great lengths to ensure that public commemoration events are not held -- including transporting known dissidents out of the city on the anniversary.

Groups such as the "Tiananmen Mothers", parents who lost children in the violence, are pressured to stay silent and citizens are detained for even making small tributes to the occasion.

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In Hong Kong, annual commemoration events are held for the victims of the massacre, with 2,000 protesters lining the streets earlier this week to mark the 30th anniversary.

Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights lawyer who was detained for trying to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre, told the Guardian that the Chinese government is particularly nervous in the lead-up to the 30th anniversary due to mounting international criticism of the Party's practices.

Wounded protesters were rushed to hospitals on rickshaws. Source: AAP Photos.

Bao Pu, the son of a top aide to the former premier, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that the acknowledgement of the incident at Tiananmen Square throws into question the legitimacy of the Communist Party itself.

"The party's legitimacy was lost the moment it ordered the army to open fire on the peaceful protesters...it is counting on the public to forget about it," he said.

Contact: elscott@networkten.com.au