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Pro-democracy student demonstrators face-to-face with police during the funeral ceremony of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang in April, 1989. The protests were crushed six weeks later. Photo: Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images

In the spring of 1989, Chinese students began gathering in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, at first to mourn the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang and then in hopes of persuading their government to allow greater political freedom across the country.

Flashback: Over a period of six weeks, the crowd swelled as older people joined and the list of demands broadened. The occupation of the square took on a life on its own, and some within the Communist Party leadership began to see a threat to their monopoly on political power.

The contest for control of the square soon became a battle for information.

  • Protest leaders assigned lookouts to watch for any approach of troops. Any sign of movement by police or soldiers sent protesters scrambling to landline telephones in nearby buildings to call supporters to flood the square to make it more difficult for security forces to enter.
  • On June 4, 1989, under cover of darkness, Chinese tanks finally pushed into Tiananmen, crushing the protests and killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

On Tuesday, many around the world will mark the 30-year anniversary of that event, a moment that changed China and the trajectory of world history.

  • But, of course, the occasion will not be marked inside China, at least not publicly. That's because gaining access to the history of Tiananmen is, for most Chinese, still a battle for information, even if it's no longer a fight over landline phones or state-run TV and radio.

Only those over the age of 35 have any personal memory of the event.

  • And while today China's citizens can use digital and social media to speak directly with one another, the government still controls communications and access to information.
  • Social media accounts in China must be registered to users' real names, and tech companies are required to give the government access to all of their users' information if asked to do so.

Beyond keeping Tiananmen references off the traditional airwaves, advances in artificial intelligence also allow government computers to patrol the Internet in search of any reference to the Tiananmen protests and crackdown.

  • The numbers 46 and 64, potential references to June 4, are removed from online posts. In 2012, censors briefly blocked access to the search term "Shanghai Stock market" after the index coincidentally fell exactly 64.89 points on the anniversary of the massacre.
  • Terms even loosely associated with the protests and crackdown are diverted to unrelated results. Video recognition software is programmed to scrub away any photographic reference to the events.

The bottom line: Three decades later, it's clear that China's leaders still fear the Chinese people and what they might want more than they fear any threat from abroad.

Sign up for Signal, a thrice-weekly newsletter from GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company.

Go deeper

Trump can't quit mainstream media

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa are interviewed by Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" in September. Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa issued a rebuttal on Friday to a statement by former President Donald Trump that misrepresented their reporting — and once again showed the 45th president's thin skin about mainstream media.

Driving the news: "Former President Trump said ... our book, 'Peril,' implied that he was planning to go to war with China," the statement begins. "[W]e report that Chairman of Joint Chiefs Mark Milley 'believed that Trump did not want a war' before or after the 2020 election."

NY declares state of emergency amid concerns over Omicron COVID variant

Governor Kathy Hochul makes an announcement about a new plan transforming Penn Station on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday declared a state of emergency amid rising COVID-19 cases and the newly-identified Omicron variant of the virus.

Driving the news: The declaration enables the state to acquire supplies to fight a potential surge in cases, increase hospital capacity and combat potential staff shortages, NBC's local affiliate reports.

4 hours ago - Health

First cases of COVID-19 Omicron variant discovered in U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Two cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant were detected in the United Kingdom overnight, the U.K. Health Security Agency announced Saturday.

Why it matters: The discovery comes as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.