June 2, 2019
Zhou Fengsuo has always erred on the side of optimism.
Five years ago, to mark the 25th anniversary of Beijing's deadly crackdown, he took advantage of a 72-hour transit visa to sneak back into China on his American passport.
It was an act that would be unthinkable now.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has returned to a level of oppression not seen since the Mao era, its security apparatus bolstered by cutting edge technology and the party's ability to silence critics virtually unchallenged.
"There is no reason to be optimistic for China now if you look at what's happening," said Zhou, a former student leader who was number five on Beijing's 'Most Wanted' list in the aftermath of the crackdown and who now lives in the United States.
"It's darkening day by day, (what) was unimaginable a year ago, now it's becoming reality. Even '1984', the novel, couldn't go that far," he told AFP in New York, referencing George Orwell's seminal novel on life in a totalitarian state.
Most of those young protesters drawn to Beijing's streets in the spring of 1989 are now in their early fifties and there is a profound sense of urgency that time is running out to keep alive the memory of what happened.
The 'Great Firewall' and eagle-eyed party censors have proven adept at scrubbing the web inside China of any reference to Tiananmen.
And in more recent years university campuses in the West have witnessed increasingly strident nationalist rhetoric from overseas Chinese students.
"There is nothing to be optimistic about the younger generation at campus today, they grew up completely under the shadow of the firewall, so that means they are indoctrinated by the brainwashing when they are babies," Zhou told AFP.
- Crushed by tanks -
Fang Zheng, a Tiananmen survivor who lost his legs when they were crushed by a tank, is similarly grim in his projections.
The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was seeing the shattered white bones of his legs exposed to the air.
Few survivors have suffered so physically as Fang. Yet each spring he has flown all over the world to tell his story.
But he has little hope for China's future.
"I'm getting more and more pessimistic," he told AFP by phone from his home in San Fransisco.
"Especially since Xi became leader, the government now uses all sorts of means to control residents. High-tech devices help the government to monitor the people."
Most of the politically active Tiananmen survivors have made their homes in the States, often after serving prison sentences and years spent persuading the Chinese authorities to give them passports.
Wu'er Kaixi stayed closer, chosing the democratic island of Taiwan.
Hailing from China's Uighur minority -- who now face unprecedented levels of forced incarceration and state surveillance in western Xinjiang province -- Wu'er became one of the most outspoken student leaders during the 1989 protests.
He famously rebuked Premier Li Peng on national television, an unprecedented dressing down of a top party official, one who later went on to oversee the deadly crackdown.
Wu'er said he had spent the last three decades watching with horror as western nations embraced China, hopeful that economic growth might nudge the party towards political liberalisation.
"They call it engagement, I call it appeasement, and that has led to the consequences that China is a clear threat to the world order and universal values," he told AFP at the sidelines of a Tiananmen conference in Taipei.
There is a sense of fatigue in his voice, that every June it has been up to a small coterie of survivors to remind the world of Tiananmen's legacy.
"It is no longer just the Chinese democracy activists' responsibility to bring China to freedom and democracy, nowadays the whole world share a piece of blame and responsibility," he said.
In an illustration of China's growing ability to counter dissidents, the conference which Wu'er was attending used to be held in Hong Kong. But with the international finance hub witnessing its own crackdown, organisers moved it to Taipei.
- Ailing parents -
Years of exile have taken a heavy toll on the Tiananmen survivors, especially when it comes to being so far away from ailing parents.
Fang's father died in February and he desperately wanted to return to China for the funeral.
To his surprise he was initially given a visa by the consulate in San Francisco only to see it rescinded hours later.
"I was very disappointed. And my daughters, they dislike China even more now," he recalled.
Wu'er dreads getting that call from family members in China.
"My parents couldn't see their boy for 30 years," he said. "I can take the consequences for the path I have chosen, but (the) barbaric Chinese regime has prevented my parents from seeing their child, their grandchildren, so the sacrifice is great."
Of the Tiananmen survivors AFP interviewed, Wang Dan remained the most optimistic.
Like Wu'er, he emerged one of the most prominent student leaders and was rewarded with being placed at the top of Beijing's most wanted list.
He spent four years behind bars before eventually making it the US.
He describes Xi as "a second Mao" but he takes solace from the fact that even Mao's reign of repression came to an end.
In the long term, he believes, China's party cannot control the population indefinitely.
"Any kind of dictator or authoritarian regime cannot change human nature," he said. "Believing in this, I still have hope for the future. I don't know when or how it will happen, but I know it will happen."
Long term, Zhou also thinks China's authoritarianism will fold, but it is not something he expects to see in his lifetime.
"I believe history is on our side," he said. "But I don't know how long it will take, how many generations."
Tiananmen's key moments: hope crushed by soldiers and tanks
Hong Kong (AFP) June 2, 2019 - Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing where Chinese troops fired on peaceful protesters, drawing global condemnation.
Students rallying for democracy and freedom had filled the symbolic heart of Chinese power, drawing in workers and intellectuals and inspiring demonstrations across the country.
But after weeks of protest, the movement was shattered by an overnight military assault that left hundreds of people dead -- by some estimates, more than 1,000 -- and a ruling party hell-bent on preventing any such future challenges to its power.
Three decades on, the crackdown remains one of the most sensitive subjects in mainland China and any mention is strictly censored.
Here are five key moments from that tumultuous spring.
- April 15: Death of a reformer -
Purged during the Cultural Revolution, Hu Yaobang was elected Chinese Communist Party leader in 1981 but dismissed in 1987 for his relaxed handling of a wave of student unrest.
Hu was popularly revered as a liberal reformer and protests first break out at Tiananmen Square two days after his death on April 15.
Fuelled by frustration from years of economic upheaval, the movement gathers pace as public mourning for the former party chief morphs into wider calls for political change and curbs to official corruption.
- April 27: Protests mushroom -
On April 25, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping says the protest movement seeks to topple the Communist Party -- a claim that forms the basis of an explosive editorial in the official People's Daily newspaper the next day.
Incensed by the editorial's rhetoric, crowds flood the streets of Beijing on April 27 and protests erupt across the nation.
A week later on the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement -- the landmark protest against colonialism and imperialism that rocked China in 1919 -- a new mass protest breaks out in Beijing and other cities from Shanghai to Xi'an.
- May 13: Tiananmen occupied -
Hundreds of students occupy Tiananmen Square and begin a hunger strike on May 13, joined by thousands more in the following days.
Demonstrators disrupt a historic visit by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the normalisation of Sino-Soviet ties on May 15.
Premier Li Peng meets student activists including Wu'er Kaixi and Wang Dan in a nationally televised meeting on May 18, in which students berate the party leaders.
- May 20: Martial law declared -
Party chief Zhao Ziyang emotionally pleads with hunger strikers to leave the square on May 19 in what is his last public appearance.
Sidelined for opposing the use of force, Zhao is sacked and put under house arrest for the next 16 years until his death.
Premier Li, later dubbed the "Butcher of Beijing" for his role in the bloody crackdown, declares martial law in parts of the capital on May 20.
But the students remain, erecting a statue titled the "Goddess of Democracy" facing the portrait of Mao Zedong on the wall of the Forbidden City.
- June 3-5: The bloody crackdown -
On the night of June 3, at the Muxidi crossroads, tanks break through the line of buses that had blocked their entry, and soldiers open fire on the crowd.
Advancing from all sides, the troops encircle Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4. Under the eyes of paratroopers with fixed bayonets, the remaining students leave the square.
Most of those slain are on the streets outside the square. The number of casualties is disputed, and the government has never released an official death toll.
But estimates from academics, witnesses and human rights groups have put the figure between several hundred to over a thousand.
On June 5, a solitary man blocks a column of tanks and armoured vehicles stretching far down the road in a minutes-long standoff before two men pull him away.
Captured on camera, "Tank Man" becomes one of the defining images of the 20th century.
His identity and fate are unknown.