Fifth Anniversary: 'A Special Kind of Day'


Beijing.--The young man came up beside me in the bike lane on the west side of Tiananmen Square Friday and silently glided until he matched my slow cadence of pedaling.

"Today is a kind of special day, isn't it," he murmured, steadfastly gazing straight ahead.

"Of course," I said noncommittedly, not knowing if he was partners with the public security agent who had been cycling about 50 yards behind me almost since I left my apartment about a half-hour earlier.

Friday, of course, was the onset of the fifth anniversary of the two-day period in which the Chinese army killed at least hundreds of unarmed protesters near this square in the center of Beijing.

Nothing much of note went on here Friday, except an impressive display of the Chinese Communist Party's fear of its own people.

As a result of the Tiananmen anniversary, the government security apparatus has been locking down China's capital for weeks now. And by Friday, all the screws seemed to be firmly in place.

Nevertheless, it was a bright, sunny day, a good day for a bike ride to a place -- and a symbol -- that has been never far from the heart of the story that I've been covering for most of the past five years.

"You'd better be careful," I told my new cycling companion, motioning behind me with my thumb. "Public security."

"Just ride," he said, never looking my way.

And so we pedaled on in parallel, I and this man in his late 20s whose true purpose I could not guess and likely would never entirely fathom -- an apt metaphor for much of what the foreign press encounters here.

We rolled past the public-security and armed-police vans and buses parked every 40 to 50 feet on the sidewalk between the Great Hall of the People and the huge square.

Past the clumps of plainclothes agents, many of whom apparently were issued the same straw sun hats.

And past the Monument to the People's Heroes, the obelisk erected in memory of those who died for the Communist revolution and the site where five years ago yesterday the last Tiananmen protesters courageously hung on.

"Many people have forgotten," my fellow cyclist said as we hit the south end of the square and sliced through the edge of Qianmen, a busy shopping district enlivened by the consumption boom that has swallowed Beijing and other Chinese cities in recent years.

My tail -- the agent riding behind us -- was still there. But Qianmen's commotion seemed to temporarily mute his presence.

"The government would like to pretend it never happened," the young man said. "But it won't let us."

We slowly turned north to cycle along the east side of the square.

In the weeks after the crackdown on the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and again on its first anniversary in 1990, foreign reporters coming around here could easily end up with assault rifles pointed at the tips of their noses. It wasn't fun.

Two years ago, a colleague working for a U.S. television network was so badly beaten up on the square that he still is disabled by the neurological damage.

Authorities have never recognized the incident.

No guns were openly evident Friday. In recent years, Chinese security apparatchiks have seemed to have gained a degree of experience in handling these matters in less heavy-handed ways.

But their paramilitary presence was as unsubtle as ever.

Within's a baseball's throw of the People's Heroes monument, more than half the would-be tourists lingering around appeared to be agents. Many were readily identifiable from their not-so-concealed beepers, portable phones, briefcase cameras or binoculars -- not to mention their military-issue belt buckles (They invariably seem to neglect to change their belts.).

The overkill was consistent with the last couple of weeks here in which the government -- faced with relatively little challenge from the few dissidents still in the open here -- has acted as though it was under siege.

This has been so much the case that it has prompted some foreign reporters and diplomats to muse that the government must know something that the entire China-watching corps is missing. Or it could just be a kind of dress rehearsal for how the TTC regime will handle the death of Deng Xiaoping, China's elderly and ailing paramount leader.

Aside from aggressively harassing dissidents, following foreign reporters and tapping phone lines -- all of which have become standard practices this time each year -- security agents have been noticeably more quick this spring to react to any ripple that might infringe on their sense of control.

An elderly Chinese couple, philosophy professor Ding Zilin and her husband, launched a fast Thursday in the privacy of their home to protest the oppressive surveillance to which they've been subjected because they've been talking to the foreign press about the death of her 17-year-old son in the Tiananmen crackdown five years ago. Authorities responded by blocking virtually all phone calls to their apartment.

Even gatherings primarily of foreigners -- parties, charity bazaars, film viewings -- have been canceled by authorities. The usual excuse has been an electrical power failure, a problem that typically arises at the last minute and lasts only as long as the scheduled event.

Beijing hotels were ordered by police Thursday to turn off their satellite TV broadcasts of the U.S.-based Cable News Network. In the city's foreign-apartment compounds, CNN still was available, but the broadcasts were blacked out whenever a news item about China came on.

"What do they have to fear?" the young cyclist asked as we reached the north end of the square and turned into the much larger swarms of riders flowing down the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, the broad boulevard that bisects Beijing from east to west.

"They have all the power," he said in answer to his own question.

I thought a moment, was about to say something and found he wasn't at my side any longer or anywhere within the mass of bikes now around me.

In this crowded Beijing street, I suddenly was alone again -- except for the thug on the bike still behind me.

Robert Benjamin is The Baltimore Sun's Beijing correspondent.

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