20 Years Later, Is Tiananmen Square History?

Twenty years ago this week, Qi Zhiyong was in Beijing's Tiananmen Square the night Chinese soldiers fired on student protestors who had occupied the square for nearly two months.

Qi recently agreed to let ABC News accompany him on his first trip back to the square since the night that changed his life.

"The tanks just ran into people," Qi recalled. "I saw a person's head crack open, and he fell back, dead."

Qi was not a student then but a construction worker who had come to the square to see what was happening and because he was looking to form his own political ideas, he said.

He said he was fleeing the square when he was shot in the leg. He saw people dying all around him.

Qi's left leg had to be amputated. For many years, he struggled with the memories of what he'd seen that night but kept quiet about what had happened to him.

But Qi has since been speaking out and wants the Chinese government to acknowledge what unfolded.

"It was the biggest maneuver by the Communist Party of China to mobilize troops, tanks and armed police to shoot and kill its own people," he told ABC News.

It is still not known exactly how many people were killed during the crackdown. On Wednesday, one day before the June 4, anniversary, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the Chinese government to release a full accounting of the incident.

"A China that has made enormous progress economically and is emerging to take its rightful place in global leadership should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal," Clinton said in the statement.

The Chinese government has said the death toll was about 200, a figure considered incredibly low by many observers, but the Chinese never set up an independent probe into what happened that night.

Clinton also called on the government to release from jail anyone still imprisoned in the wake of the trajedy.

Today, Tiananmen Square looks very different. It is full of tourists, not protestors, a far cry from 20 years ago and the iconic image of a lone protestor facing down a Chinese tank on the square.

But soldiers and police still keep a watchful eye. Our cameras were turned away when we recently visited, as the soldiers have been told to prevent journalists from capturing events there during this politically sensitive anniversary. At a security checkpoint, the guards took the information from our press cards, and when we subsequently tried to shoot video from outside the perimeter of the square, plainclothes police officers blocked our cameras with umbrellas.

CNN International and BBC World are the only two Western news channels available here. But this week, when they air their stories about Tiananmen Square, the Chinese censors will step in and the signal will go black. Twitter is blocked, as well as several Internet search engines. There is no coverage of the 1989 crackdown in the state-run media.

What Happened in Tiananmen Square?

When the Chinese leaders decided to use force against pro-democracy protesters, they sent tanks and troops armed with submachine guns to take back Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. The move was the culmination of almost seven weeks of peaceful demonstrations that erupted after the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang.

When university students decided to go on a hunger strike May 13, it quickly blossomed into a virtual occupation of Tiananmen Square. The Chinese leaders were humiliated two days later when they couldn't hold the welcoming ceremony for the visiting Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a designated area near the square. They decided to declare martial law, but the first batch of soldiers were blocked by the residents, and they failed to enter the square. After a stalemate of almost two weeks, the soldiers finally opened fire and made their way to the square.

Chinese authorities have continued to defend the use of deadly force against what they once described as a "counterrevolutionary riot." But they have modified their characterizations with the passage of time. They have started to refer to the demonstrations as "turmoil" and a "political disturbance" and more recently settled for calling it "the Tiananmen incident."

When asked recently by a reporter if the Chinese government would ever apologize for what it did 20 years ago, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu replied, "It is not appropriate for you to use the word apologize."

He reiterated the government's position: "Facts have proven that the path taken by China is in line with the actual situation in China and in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people."

While China has undergone a massive transformation in the years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, many things have remained the same.

Young Chinese Largely Unmoved by Tiananmen History

Young Chinese people here today are largely unaware of the significance of this day. Those who use the Internet find pages referencing Tiananmen Square blocked. Many know that some sort of incident occurred June 4, 1989, but they don't know much more. And largely, it seems they don't really care. The younger generation believes what happened in Tiananmen Square does not affect their lives.

One 25-year-old Chinese professional in Beijing told ABC News that "We are worried about getting a good job and making money. Whatever happened 20 years ago does not affect us today. It's history."

Indeed, China has experienced an unparalleled economic boom. The Chinese people, as a whole, have more money today than ever before. For many here, that is enough progress.

We did several interviews with those involved in the pro-democracy protests. We had to do them two months in advance because activists always run the risk of being placed under lockdown during sensitive times in China.

Jiang Qisheng is still a pro-democracy activist and was a student leader in 1989. He has been imprisoned several times and is under constant surveillance, but he talks to foreign journalists because he still believes he must do something. He was involved with Charter '08, an open letter calling for democratic reforms that was signed by dozens of activists and scholars, many of whom have been arrested. But Jiang has no regrets.

"I will live on like this," he told ABC News. "I will keep speaking out and writing about the truth to let the world know it and tell the people about my ideas, to work with others who would like to pay the price to realize democracy in China."

His goal will not be an easy one to accomplish. Today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the brutal crackdown on Tiananmen Square, Jiang and his family are under house arrest with police guarding their home.