By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Twenty-two years after China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests, at least five people remain in jail for joining in the tumult.
For China's ruling Communist Party, the 1989 demonstrations that clogged Tiananmen Square in Beijing and spread to other cities remains a taboo topic, all the more so this year when the government has launched a campaign to stamp out dissent after the uprisings in several Arab countries.
The anniversary of the suppression of the student-led movement falls on Saturday, and three men who joined in the protests, Jiang Yaqun, 75, Miao Deshun, 48, and Yang Pu, 47, remain in Beijing's Yanqing prison, where sick inmates are held.
Two others -- Chang Jingqiang, 43, and Li Yujun, 48, -- are being held in another Beijing jail.
They were among a million students and workers who had gathered on Beijing's streets in 1989 to join pro-democracy demonstrations that ended before dawn on June 4 when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.
Jiang and Miao have been jailed for an unusually long time, said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S. group that works for the release of Chinese political prisoners.
Originally given suspended death sentences, which were then commuted to life imprisonment before being commuted to roughly 20-year sentences, Jiang is due to be released in October 2013, while Miao's sentence is set to end on September 2018, according to Dui Hua.
Jiang, who was convicted on charges of "counter-revolutionary sabotage," suffers from mild mental retardation, according to former prisoners who were in jail at the same time.
"He had no contact with any relatives when he was in prison," said Zhang Baoqun, 45, who was jailed for nearly 14 years for participating in the protests.
They spent their days making woolen clothes and gloves. Prisoners were frequently beaten by guards, he said.
Miao was convicted on an "arson" charge. Tanks and buses carrying troops were burned when Beijing residents took to the streets to try to block advancing soldiers.
"He was very stubborn, and that's why there was no sentence reduction," said former inmate Sun Liyong, who knew Miao from their time together in Beijing's No. 1 and No.2 prisons. "He kept on saying he wasn't guilty of anything."
Despite the efforts of dissidents and victims' families to keep the memories of Tiananmen alive, the official silence about that period means few young people know much about the pro-democracy protest.
Analysts and activists say hopes for a large-scale democracy movement like the one in 1989 look increasingly distant as China's ruling Communist Party, which brooks no dissent, spends more and more on police and domestic surveillance, reflecting their determination to avoid a repeat of the Tiananmen protests.
The government has never released a death toll of the 1989 crackdown.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday the Chinese people are "enjoying the best human rights situation in history," a statement heavily disputed by activists.
"The failure of the Chinese government to account for and admit to the massacre has laid the foundation of impunity, which one can draw a direct line to the repression we've seen since mid-February," said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
Dozens of dissidents and human rights advocates were detained or put under informal custody after online calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in the style of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East, which have so far succeeded in ousting two authoritarian leaders.
Kine said the current crackdown is "more disturbing" than the one in Tiananmen. "At least back then, there was a veneer of due legal process," he said. "What we've seen more and more is the lawless and thuggish use of forced disappearances to silence the forces of dissent."
Memories of Tiananmen have receded with the passing of time and the rise of the Chinese economy, the world's second-largest.
But behind the outward prosperity looms a potentially divisive rich-poor divide in a country where 150 million people still live on just $0.50 a day.
Beijing is battling inflation that is near a 32-month high and local riots, protests and strikes -- or what officials call "mass incidents."
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who specialises in protests in modern Chinese history, said the government had done a good job of involving its people in the economic boom.
"But one thing that hasn't changed now from back then is that there's still widespread anger and disgust with official corruption and nepotism. That was the key driving force of the 1989 protests," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Editing by Chris Buckley and Miral Fahmy)