Massacre? What massacre?

It was 20 years ago today that Chinese army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to bring a dramatic and brutal end to seven weeks of protest.

Officially, 241 civilans and soldiers died in what the Chinese government refers to as simply ‘the June 4th incident’. Common wisdom generally puts the number of fatalities much higher than that: certainly several hundred, possibly even a few thousand. We will never know for sure.

What we do know with certainty are the seminal images that were broadcast around the world from what non-Chinese typically refer to with more emotive – and, it must be said, more accurate – descriptors such as ‘the Tiananmen Square massacre’.

Just mention the words ‘Tank Man’ to anyone aged, say, 35 or older, and a picture of a lone protestor standing in the middle of the road, arms outstretched, attempting to stop a line of tanks approaching the square, will instantly form in their mind. (We know that Tank Man was eventually dragged away by the police, and it is widely assumed he was subsequently executed. Certainly, the Chinese government were never able to provide any physical evidence to the contrary.)

The sad thing is that the vast majority of us living outside China know and have seen more of what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989, than the billion-plus Chinese population were every privy to. News, photographs and video images were – and still are – rigorously censored by the authorities.

In the run-up to today’s anniversary, the square has been blocked off to prevent any kind of mass gathering, and access to Hotmail accounts and social networking websites like Twitter and Flickr temporarily suspended.

It seems that, 20 years on, the aggressive suppression of information and the curtailment of basic civil liberties such as the right to gather remain standard operating practice for the powers-that-be in Beijing. Even now, in supposedly more enlightened times, they remain just as committed to keeping their citizens in the dark as they have ever been.

And that’s the saddest thing of all.