There were soldiers with guns, police with dogs and plainclothes officers watching every move. In Tiananmen Square, on an anniversary of death whose memory China has sought to expunge, the full force of a powerful security apparatus gathered to ensure no one came to remember.

Officers electronically scanned identification cards, carefully screening each person coming to the place that was once the heart of a democracy movement. Some foreign journalists were denied entry; others were tailed at close distance by police.

But 25 years after Chinese soldiers opened fire on their own people, a brave few walked into the maw of the country’s fearsome public-safety machine to give quiet witness that they are uncowed – and that hopes for a democratic China have not yet been completely extinguished.

Among them was a 66-year-old man who arrived wearing a baggy black shirt, sagging black shorts and black sandals. He had come against the pleading of his wife who knew that his intentions, and the colour of his clothing, stood to land him in prison.

The man, who asked his name not be published for fear of reprisal, decided he didn’t care. He believes the government needs to acknowledge what happened, and to apologize for what it did.

He wanted to take a stand in remembrance of the hundreds – perhaps more than a thousand – who died when Chinese soldiers opened fire on their own people in 1989.

“Surely the authorities won’t arrest me for walking around and expressing some of my opinions, will they?” he said. “And if it really went that badly, I would rather suffer in jail. I’m not afraid. My arrest would mean the Communist Party of China has degenerated into hopelessness.”

And so, early on Wednesday morning, he walked along the square, his thoughts turning to how he came to be here – and how China came to be a country where the mere act of wearing black on June 4 requires profound courage.

Indeed, for many who came to the square on Wednesday, there is nothing to remember. A giant video screen flashed with images of blueprints and circuit boards, a picture of modern China that neatly elided the past. “Shanghai, city of inspiration,” the screen said.

A half-dozen tourists, asked what day it was, responded with blank stares. Some scrambled out cellphones to check the lunar calendar – “I thought it was probably a holiday,” one said. Another attempted a Web search, which came up empty on China’s heavily censored Internet.

Even older tourists, people alive during the 1989 crackdown, professed no memories of what happened.

Shenme yisi?” a tourist in his 50s from the nearby Chinese province of Anhui asked, in reply to a question about the importance of June 4. “What does that mean?”

Meanwhile, not far away, a group of tourists gazed at the the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 10-storey obelisk erected soon after the Communist Party took power. On its front, inscribed in Mao Zedong’s handwriting, is the phrase: “Eternal glory to the people’s heroes.”

The monument stood at the centre of the student protests that led to the violent crackdown ordered by then-leader Deng Xiaoping. On Wednesday, it was remembered as something very different. “The monument looks like a sword upside down,” a tour guide, speaking through a loudspeaker, said. “It represents the powerful rule of the Communist Party, without being too sharp. And this is unique in the world.”

That, at least, was the promise when the 66-year-old man in black was growing up. His parents were revolution-era Communist cadres, and for a time, he believed it, too. He carried a party membership through a career in publishing, a field firmly under the Party’s thumb.

Then 1989 came. He was 41 then, far from his student days. Yet he joined the great sweep of Chinese rallying for political reform. “So many people joined demonstrations in Beijing – cadres in the government administration, company clerks, workers and students,” he said. “A broad cross-section of people were involved.”

On the afternoon of June 3, he recalled, he watched as military vehicles prepared for what would be their deadly push into Tiananmen Square. That night, he heard shooting, and saw troops pass by his home. The next morning, he emerged to a bullet-scarred city where pedicabs carried away the injured.

“I was racked by grief and fury,” he recalled. “How dare the authorities use the army to oppress their own people?”

But the anger waned in the years that followed. Like many others in China, he says he “didn’t care about politics. I was focused only on building a good life for myself.”

Last year, in the contemplation of retirement, something changed. A yearning inexplicably grew in him. He began to think again like the man he was 25 years ago. “I believe in democracy and freedom,” he said. “I think China should move toward democracy and abandon one-party rule.”

Still, he knows his hope must confront the difficulty of ever achieving those dreams.

As he walked around the square Wednesday, he saw a group of young people sitting next to the fence that surrounds the Mao mausoleum, where every day crowds of people still shuffle by in silence to pay respects to the father of Communist China. “They looked very happy,” the man said.

It was a sobering moment. “People their age likely have no idea at all about what happened,” he said. “That’s exactly what the authorities expect. They just want to hold out until it’s all gone.”

BEIJING — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jun. 04 2014, 1:10 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jun. 04 2014, 8:38 PM EDT