20 Years Later, Is Tiananmen Square History?

Survivors, activists struggle against censorship to make China accept the past.

ByABC News
June 3, 2009, 10:18 AM

BEIJING, June 3, 2009 — -- 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.