THIRTY years ago next week, millions of Chinese staged the biggest challenge to the Communist Party’s legitimacy since it had come to power in 1949. Foreign Editor David Pratt reflects on the impact of the “tank man” and legacy of the Tiananmen protests.

IT’S one of those photographic images seared into our collective memories that has long since become a popular icon.

There are five known photographers who captured the dramatic events that unfolded that morning back in June 5 1989, but the one taken by photojournalist Jeff Widener of the Associated Press is the one that was reproduced across the world.

Perched on a sixth floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about 800 yards from the scene, Widener captured the moment when a lone man standing in the middle of Chang’an Avenue, just off Tiananmen Square stood his ground and faced down a column of four advancing Chinese Army tanks.

In the space of a few seconds this singular act of defiance was immortalised and the “tank man” photograph as it became known, became a symbol of resistance to unjust regimes everywhere.

This Tuesday it will be thirty years since that image was created against the backdrop of momentous events that took place in Tiananmen Square. While the tank man’s identity and fate remain a mystery, the world now knows much more about what happened during those days when more than a million Chinese civilians, many of them students, staged the biggest challenge to the Communist Party’s legitimacy since it had come to power in 1949.

Initially fuelled by anger at the slow place of democratic reforms by a government many viewed as a dictatorship, the main demands of the protestors were for an end to corruption in official circles along with the special privileges of the elite, freedom of expression in society and in the media.

As the pro-democracy movement rapidly spread across this vast country, attempts at compromise by the two sides failed. After about two months, martial law was declared in parts of Beijing and 200,000 troops sent to quell what the Chinese Communist Party called a “counter-revolutionary revolt” and bring the capital under control.

“White terror,” a term that originated from the Russian civil war, was the phrase people used to describe the expanding security crackdown. This was to culminate in those moments when the Chinese ‘People’s Liberation Army’ opened fire point-blank on unarmed civilians around Tiananmen Square.

Like the identity of the “tank man” himself, just exactly how many died remains something of a mystery. Some western press agencies reported on June 14 1989 that the Chinese government first said there were 300 deaths. Another figure from the Chinese Red Cross estimated 2,600 people were killed, but that figure was later retracted.

Also on June 5, the very day the ‘tank man’ photograph was taken, a diplomatic cable sent by the-then British ambassador to China and declassified in 2017, estimated at least 10,000 were killed.

Whatever the true figure, over the past three decades since, the ruling Communist Party has systematically attempted to erase the numbers and memory of Tiananmen using both high-and low-tech methods including extensive online censorship, and brute intimidation of dissidents and victims' families.

The Tiananmen crackdown is a taboo subject in China and never more so than in the run up to its anniversary. This year it’s business as usual in Beijing as far as the clampdown is concerned say human rights groups.

“Thirty years on from the Tiananmen bloodshed the very least the victims and their families deserve is justice,” observed Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director of Amnesty International last week.

“President Xi continues to read from the same tired political playbook, cruelly persecuting those seeking the truth about the tragedy in a concerted effort to wipe the crackdown from memory,” Rife added, referring to China’s current leader President Xi Jinping.

As Amnesty and other human rights organisations have highlighted, any references to those dark days in Tiananmen continues to be systematically censored in China.

In fact anyone who seeks to commemorate the victims does so at great personal risk and is likely to be harassed or detained.

As China’s most sensitive day of the year approaches, the Orwellian big brother surveillance machine that the regime uses to monitor and watch it’s citizens has gone into full deployment.

Censors at Chinese internet companies say tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown have reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning and voice and image recognition.

“We sometimes say that the artificial intelligence is a scalpel, and a human is a machete,” said one content screening employee at Beijing Bytedance Co Ltd, who spoke last week to the Reuters news agency but asked not to be identified because they are not authorised to speak to media.

Two employees at the firm said censorship of the Tiananmen crackdown, along with other highly sensitive issues including Taiwan and Tibet, is now largely automated.

Posts that allude to dates, images and names associated with the protests are automatically rejected.

“When I first began this kind of work four years ago there was opportunity to remove the images of Tiananmen, but now the artificial intelligence is very accurate,” one of the employees told Reuters.

More than 3,200 words that reference the Tiananmen massacre have been censored, according to a joint survey released this year by the University of Toronto and the University of Hong Kong.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Chinese live video streaming sites too have announced they would be “updating” their systems over the next few days, preventing users from creating new accounts or posting comments in real time.

This has not prevented some people from playing a sort of online cat and mouse game with the authorities. On June 4th itself more and more obscure references will be made on social media sites, with obvious allusions blocked immediately. In some years during the anniversary even the word “today” has been erased.

In the lead-up to this year’s anniversary, censorship on social media has targeted LGBT groups, labour and environment activists and non-governmental groups (NGOs), say human rights activists.

On Friday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a list of names associated with the pro-democracy protests of 1989. Some of the people on the list have already been jailed, recently placed under house arrest or forced to go on “vacation” far from Beijing.

On May 28 several artists in Nanjing on a “national conscience exhibit tour” went missing and are feared to have been detained, according to Liu Lijiao, the wife of one artist, Zhui Hun.

According to rights groups, Chinese authorities also recently took well-known activist Hu Jia on an enforced “guarded vacation” to a port city nearly 200 miles from his Beijing home.

The HRW published list also includes a non-governmental group, called the Tiananmen Mothers, made up of relatives of people killed back during the protests.

The “mothers” live under constant electronic and police surveillance. Police are known to pounce on any attempt by them to hold group-mourning sessions for their children killed that day back in 1989.

Two weeks ago founding member of the group, 82-year-old Ding Zilin, whose son was killed by troops, was forced to travel more than 600 miles to her hometown in Jiangsu province.

With many of the “mothers” now very elderly, they fear they will not live to see Beijing reverse its official condemnation of the protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot”. For now they can only invest their hopes in the judgment of history.

In a recent open letter signed on the website of “Human Rights in China”, 127 relatives of those killed in the massacre remember 55 of their number who have died in recent years.

“Thirty years later, while the criminal evidence has been covered up by the façade of ‘prosperity’ made up of towering buildings and clustered overpasses, the hard facts of the massacre are etched into history. No one can erase it; no power, however mighty, can alter it; and no words or tongues, however clever, can deny it,” they wrote in the open letter.

But it’s not only during the Tiananmen anniversary however that China’s human rights abuses are brought to the fore and revealed.

Rights activists point to how the government continues to draft and enact new laws under the guise of “national security” that present serious threats to human rights. Two years ago the writer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in custody.

Many others meanwhile continue to be detained, prosecuted and sentenced on the basis of vague and over-broad charges such as “subverting state power,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

Police are also known to detain human rights defenders outside formal detention facilities, sometimes incommunicado, for long periods, which pose the additional risk of torture and other ill treatment to the detainees.

Repression of religious activities outside state-sanctioned churches has similarly increased, likewise crackdowns conducted under so called “anti-separatism” or “counter-terrorism” laws these being particularly severe in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated areas.

In what human rights groups have called the largest mass incarceration of the 21st century more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims are believed held in internment camps.

In the name of "fighting terrorism" China has turned the whole of Xinjiang province where Uighurs make up the largest group in the region into a gigantic police state. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, at the entrance to schools, supermarkets and train stations. The police and army patrol the whole territory while searches and identity checks are systematic.

The reverberations from the Tiananmen protest have helped shape today’s China into a security state in which staging such a demonstration would be nearly impossible. This is a state like no other in terms of the scale of its system of mass surveillance and use of high-tech advancements like facial recognition to keep an eye on civilians.

The government is even experimenting with a “social credit “ system that assigns scores to civilians based on their behaviour and can affect their ability to buy a plane ticket or borrow money.

Faced with all this, for many Chinese Tiananmen remains a kind of watershed in terms of the country’s human rights.

“Tiananmen actually divides the history of the People’s Republic of China into before and after,” observed Bao Pu, the son of one Tiananmen activist interviewed last week by the Financial Times.

Today his father Bao Tong, now 86 years old is still under 24-hour surveillance at his home in Beijing because of his role in the Tiananmen events.

“What was before was that people still trusted the Communist party. They never imagined the party would send in the troops and tanks and shoot them. But after that event, the trust has been broken,” Bao Pu added, when asked about the legacy of Tiananmen.

For many people Tiananmen and the China of today seem worlds apart. It remains difficult to imagine back then there was such as thing as the Goddess of Democracy and Freedom, a 30 foot-tall statue constructed by protestors in only four days out of foam and papier-mache over a metal armature.

It’s difficult also to imagine those young students camped out in the square megaphones in hand proclaiming the need for political reform.

The China of today is such a very different place with its futuristic skyscrapers and millions of new cars jostling for position on clogged and polluted city streets that are under constant surveillance by the country’s ruling communist authorities.

But despite such changes, Tiananmen continues to haunt and embolden even as the regime tries to erase it from memory.

The identity and fate of the “tank man,” might still remain a mystery. His presence however and what he represented, lingers on like some ghostly inspirational apparition in the collective mind’s eye of many.