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Fuzzy Memories of Tiananmen Square

Original photo of the Tianamen Square protest in Beijing (left) and the doctored photo of the event, with a crowd added (right).

So much has changed in China since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protest 20 years ago that led to a bloody military crackdown that killed hundreds.

Well, actually, not so much has changed. Police today were out in full force at the square, turning away tourists and journalists. China blocked access to Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr this week.

Today, Chinese officials bristled at a call by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to publish the names of the dead, missing or detained during the violent crackdown on June 4, 1989.

"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," Clinton said.

It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? But do you remember much of the detail about the protest?

In fact, as often happens with history, memories fade and distortions take hold. CBS News correspondent Richard Roth, who was there, says from his perspective it's inaccurate to speak of a "Tiananmen Square massacre." Most of the deaths occurred outside the square, he figures. "There's no question many people were killed by the army that night around Tiananmen Square, and on the way to it — mostly in the western part of Beijing," Roth writes today.

Quiz yourself on some other details (answers below):

  • When did it all start?
  • What started the protests?
  • How many protesters ultimately gathered in the square?
  • How many people were killed when the tanks rolled in June 4?

Meanwhile, remember the guy standing in front of the tank in the iconic photo of the 1989 standoff? Nobody knows who "Tank Man" is or what happened to him. And there were actually multiple photos, and video, of that standoff.

Now, do you remember what that iconic Tank Man photos showed? One tank and the guy? A line of tanks? Crowds all around? Think about it for a moment, then check this out (it's a story about how faked photos can alter real memories).

Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.

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Answers:

  • When did it all start? (The protests actually started on April 14, only culminating with the massacre of June 4)
  • What started the protests? (The people wanted to mourn the death of pro-democracy and anti-corruption official Hu Yaobang).
  • How many protesters ultimately gathered in the square? (1 million)
  • How many people were killed when the tanks rolled in June 4? (Nobody knows. The Chinese government put the figure at 241. Other estimates range from 400 to 800. New York Times' columnist Nicholas D. Kristof figures it may have been in the thousands.)
Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.