China: End Impunity for the 1989 Atrocities and Guarantee Right to Redress

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China: End Impunity for the 1989 Atrocities and Guarantee Right to Redress

(Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders – June 2, 2014) – On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, CHRD urges the Chinese government to end the impunity for gross human rights violations during the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests, to stop its suppression of survivors and outspoken critics, to guarantee the victims’ right to obtain redress and reparations, and to lift its information blockade and prohibition on public discussion.

Thousands of people were killed or injured when the People’s Liberation Army, on orders from top government leaders, opened fire on unarmed civilians and peaceful demonstrators in Beijing and other Chinese cities on June 3-4, 1989. Unknown numbers around the country were executed and many were imprisoned.

Since 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has perpetuated a policy of deception and denial, suppressed dissent, and expunged the bloody episode from history books and the media. Still, the CCP has not succeeded in erasing the collective memory of those who participated in and witnessed the tragic events. Nor has it been able to stop China’s Internet users, in the hundreds of millions, from learning about censored accounts as they scale the “Great Firewall.”

“The heightened CCP clampdown around the anniversary every year, especially this year, to block any public expression of mourning for 1989 victims is out of the CCP’s own fear that even the mention of Tiananmen might spark widespread protests challenging the regime’s legitimacy,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s international director. “It is a sure sign of the CCP’s failure to wipe out the memory of Tiananmen.”

Chinese authorities are not taking any chances, and no hint of dissent from the Party line on Tiananmen has been too small to put down. Pre-emptive police action across China has made this “anniversary crackdown” perhaps the most extensive and intense yet. Two months before the 25th anniversary, authorities began detaining, disappearing, and intimidating dissidents, human rights lawyers, activists, journalists, and concerned citizens. CHRD has documented at least 80 cases of individuals who have been affected by the current crackdown, beginning at the end of April, with 38 criminal detentions and one confirmed arrest, five administrative detentions, and at least one disappearance. In addition, many more have been put under soft detention.

The current crackdown is a clear indication that the Xi Jinping administration is determined to prolong the CCP’s policy on Tiananmen. And this policy is just one part of the CCP’s systematic denial of accountability for its gross human rights violations. For instance, the Party has also silenced public discussion and blocked information about the famine (1959-1961) caused by catastrophic policies during the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of people starved to death, as well as the Cultural Revolution, which led to millions being persecuted. To this day, the CCP has similarly stifled discourse on harsh religious suppression and cultural genocide in Tibet.

People’s Liberation Army tanks and soldiers face down demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. (

People’s Liberation Army tanks and soldiers face down demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. (

The gag rule on Tiananmen reflects entrenched problems of unaccountability and impunity in the Chinese political and legal system. For instance, countless victims of the now-abolished Re-education through Labor system, as well as victims of the now-relaxed “one child” birth-control policy, will likely never receive justice. These victims have found it almost impossible to seek legal remedies, and it is unlikely they will obtain any acknowledgement from the government that its laws and policies had violated their rights. Victims of torture and other mistreatment in detention centers, black jails, or psychiatric facilities in China have found that attempts to seek accountability or legal remedies go nowhere other than, as is often the case, resulting in retaliation and further abuse.

The Chinese government has a poor track record in honoring its obligations under international law to ensure prompt, impartial and effective investigations of serious human rights violations, and to guarantee the right to redress and remedy of victims. These obligations are enshrined in the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (1989), and the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (2005). Similar obligations are stipulated in Articles 12-14 of the Convention against Torture, to which China has been a party since 1988, and in Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which China is a signatory, and thus under the interim obligation not to defeat the treaty’s objective and purpose.

“By refusing to open up even a sliver of space for victims of state abuses to seek justice, the CCP remains one of the most recalcitrant perpetrators of human rights abuses in the world,” said Victor Clemens, CHRD’s research coordinator. “The Chinese government must face consequences for these clear breaches of international human rights principles.”

To dodge international scrutiny, the CCP has in recent years adopted a strategy to build a gentler image of a “peacefully rising power” abroad, and at the same time maintaining steadfast political repression at home. This strategy includes the CCP toning down its rhetoric in rejecting “human rights” in international forums, as it did for many years post-Tiananmen, and instead claiming itself a champion in “improving and protecting human rights” in ways “suitable” to China’s “special circumstances.” The government is more than ever actively engaged at the UN, including with the Human Rights Council, but with the clear aim to curtail and weaken international norms and tools while vehemently rejecting criticisms of its rights abuses, including the crimes of 1989. Yet, China does not lack allies, as evidenced by China’s election to its third term on the Human Rights Council last November.

Today, the Chinese government’s self-justification for the 1989 suppression as necessary for maintaining order needed for economic development rings hollow. The government has insisted that it has since 1989 “lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty,” suggesting that “putting down counterrevolutionary riots” was necessary in order for the country’s economic “miracle” to take place. However, as the China scholar Perry Link points out, after decades of poverty caused by ruinous CCP policies, Chinese people seized the only deal offered by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s: they would be allowed to get rich in exchange for not challenging the Party’s rule. It is the hardworking Chinese themselves who have brought about this “miracle,” with staggering odds against them—no union rights, no protection of a free press or rule of law, but instead corrupt officials stealing and pocketing the vast wealth.

Although material living standards have improved in China, ongoing rights abuses have created a profoundly unjust society. Today, income disparity in China has grown to one of the largest in the world; millions of migrant workers suffer systematic discrimination in education, healthcare, and housing; the poor suffer the most from environmental pollution, which has reached hazardous levels; millions have been subjected to forced evictions; and factory workers are not legally provided with union rights to negotiate fair pay and labor protections. Increasingly, people have become aware that, in order to protect their own socio-economic interests, they must also demand a free press, rule of law, and government transparency—the same things that the Tiananmen protesters demanded and died for 25 years ago.

“The Xi Jinping administration understands very well the links between Tiananmen and today’s yearnings for justice in Chinese society, which is the reason for its current harsh crackdown,” said Renee Xia. “The skeleton of the 1989 massacre in the closet will not stop haunting the Chinese government unless it reverses course, lifts its gag rule, and allows the process of redress and healing to begin.”

For more information, please contact:

David Zhao (English, Mandarin, and Cantonese), Researcher & Media Outreach:

+852 6125 2921


Wendy Lin (Mandarin, English, and Cantonese), Hong Kong Coordinator:

+852 6933 3871,


Renee Xia (Mandarin, English), International Director:

+1 240 374 8937,


Victor Clemens (English), Research Coordinator:

+1 209 643 0539,

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