China’s New Leaders Must Confront Hard Truths on Tiananmen

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(Chinese Human Rights Defenders – June 1, 2013) – For nearly a quarter-century, the Chinese government has maintained an impervious approach to the truth about its 1989 military suppression against pro-democracy protests. Authorities have denied responsibility for the massacre and stonewalled public reckoning of the People’s Liberation Army’s use of excessive force that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead and many others injured when the military opened fire on unarmed civilians around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 3-4, 1989. For more than two decades, the government has relentlessly blocked open discussion of the bloody crackdown, efforts to seek justice, and public events to commemorate the victims. Authorities have persecuted and tried to silence supporters and victims’ families known as the “Tiananmen Mothers,” who persistently press for accountability.

“This 24th Tiananmen anniversary is the first June Fourth test confronting the new Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took the reins with his ‘Chinese Dream’ slogan, clamoring to clean up corruption and rejuvenate the nation,” said Renee Xia, CHRD international director. “But President Xi is flunking the test, as he has signaled no willingness to lift the taboo on the darkest pages in recent Chinese history.”

President Xi, in lockstep with his predecessors since 1989, is defying the Chinese government’s international treaty obligation as a State party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2008, the UN Committee Against Torture called on China to “conduct a full and impartial investigation into the suppression of the Democracy Movement in Beijing in June 1989, provide information on the persons who are still detained from that period, inform the family members of their findings, offer apologies and reparation as appropriate and prosecute those found responsible for excessive use of force, torture and other ill treatment.” China ratified the convention in 1988, a year before the 1989 tragedy.

While the government has tried to suppress the truth about what happened 24 years ago, police activities around this year’s anniversary have been customarily strident. Activists nationwide are facing heightened restrictions on movement as police have been mobilized to prevent public memorializing of the victims and calls for accountability of the massacre.

On May 31 in Hubei Province, national security officers took away activist Shi Yulin (石玉林) to prevent him from organizing June Fourth-related activities, and confiscated his computers. Also on May 31, police in Guangxi Province summoned activists in Nanning City, including Zhang Wei (张维) and Duan Qixian (端启宪), and warned them not to take part during this time in any events related to June Fourth. Several activists in Shaanxi Province who participated in the pro-democracy movement in 1989, including Yang Hai (杨海), Zhang Jiankang (张鉴康), and Ma Xiaoming (马晓明), were taken away on May 30 and forced to “travel” with police escort, likely to return home only after the anniversary. Luo Qian (罗茜), a 1989 student protester in Beijing and a key organizer of June Fourth memorial events in Hunan Province, remains out of contact after police in Hunan seized him on May 23. On May 26, police in Shandong Province cited a charge of “unlawful assembly” in summoning more than a dozen individuals who had gathered to celebrate a petitioner’s birthday. Two weeks before, four of those detained also had taken part in an activity in Jinan City to observe the anniversary.

Police in the southern province of Guangdong have seemed particularly keen to “maintain stability” before June Fourth. Ye Du (野渡), the deputy secretary-general of the Independent Chinese PEN, and Shenzhen activist Yu Gang (余刚) have been under soft detention at home, and police have cut their Internet connections while monitoring their phone calls. Guangzhou police took human rights lawyer Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) away from home on May 29 to “go travel” after warning him not to meet friends around the anniversary. Dissident Liang Songji (梁颂基) was summoned by police on May 26 and has been held incommunicado. Xu Xiangrong (徐向荣), Li Weiguo (李维国), and Li Wensheng (李文生), who had applied to hold a demonstration on June 4, were detained. Organizers of an event where participants would share ideas via cell phone about freedom and democracy on June 4, including Qiu Hua (邱华) and Yang Tingjian (杨霆剑), were taken into custody and given 15-day administrative detentions.

Besides the many pre-emptive actions taken by police, the specter of suppression from June Fourth still linger in China’s prisons. Several Tiananmen prisoners are still believed to be incarcerated. Thousands of Chinese were detained during the pro-democracy movement. And some of them, after going to prison more than two decades ago, returned to activism after they were released and have been subsequently jailed, repeatedly in some cases, and are in prison today. Chinese courts have reserved some of the harshest sentences on political charges to pro-democracy advocates from the 1989 era, including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Chen Wei (陈卫), Chen Xi (陈西), Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌), Yang Tianshui (杨天水), Xu Wanping (许万平), Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫), Xie Changfa (谢长发), Shi Tao (师涛), and Li Bifeng (李必丰). These individuals were determined to carry on the 1989 pro-democracy legacy and devoted themselves to fighting for social justice and political reforms. For them, the government’s quelling of dissent—so ruthlessly symbolized by June Fourth—has never ended.

The new Chinese leadership’s cowardly refusal to allow truth-finding about 1989 will all but doom President Xi’s quest to achieve the “Chinese Dream.” Without striving for justice and accountability, the government cannot possibly combat rampant corruption in the Chinese Communist Party, which is rapidly eroding any public trust or moral legitimacy that the CCP desperately needs in order to maintain both social stability and a hold on power. The regime’s cynicism towards the Tiananmen Massacre will dash any hope for changing other policies, whether on suppression of Tibetans and other ethnic or religious minorities, or cracking down on free expression, independent civil society groups, and labor organizing.

Only days after the grim anniversary, Xi Jinping will make his first visit as head of state to the United States. President Obama and other US officials should talk meaningfully about June Fourth and China’s ongoing human rights problems at the summit, keeping in mind that government accountability and rule of law are key to addressing numerous other issues that will be on the table, such as cyber-theft, regional security, and climate change.

“As the US and China may be looking to forge a ‘new type of relationship,’ it would be a grave mistake to leave by the wayside festering wounds due to the Chinese government’s ongoing refusal to address the 1989 atrocities,” said Renee Xia.

Go to CHRD’s website learn more about the Tiananmen Massacre, including a map of the area and a list of victims and a report on the massacre’s legacy.

Media contacts

Renee Xia, International Director, +1 240 374 8937,

Victor Clemens, Researcher, +852 8192 7875,

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