30-Year Censorship and No Accountability for Tiananmen: Here Lies the Hope

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By Renee Xia

By one important measure, the Chinese government’s 30-year campaign to enforce amnesia around the Tiananmen massacre has failed and will continue to fail. Despite China’s rising global influence and status as an economic superpower, its control of state media outlets and high-tech cyber censorship and surveillance, it still cannot stamp out domestic human rights activism.  

As the repression claims more victims—migrant workers who suffer discrimination, farmers who lost land, city-dwellers evicted from their homes—these victims and their supporters­—lawyers, journalists, and engaged netizens—including many who came of age after 1989, will keep fighting back. Their struggle is keeping the spirit of Tiananmen alive.  

Beijing has tried to systematically erase the history of the 1989 pro-democracy movement and its bloody suppression. State media referred to “counter-revolutionary violent riots” while textbooks say nothing. Authorities purge from the domestic Internet words like “Tiananmen” or “June 4th”. Taboo-breakers risk jail.

Harsh repression has not deterred those who challenge the forced amnesia. The Tiananmen Mothers, families of Tiananmen massacre victims, have steadfastly demanded justice. One of them, Ding Zilin, whose son Jiang Jielian, 17, was shot to death in the massacre, lives under police surveillance and is barred from speaking out. Dissident intellectuals, like Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, made it their mission to speak the truth about Tiananmen. Liu was persecuted literally to death in 2017 while serving a 11-year sentence for his leadership role in the Charter 08 movement, which called for accountability for Tiananmen atrocities.

Even in the last few years, after Xi Jinping ushered in the Mao-style totalitarian rule, ad hoc efforts continued inside China to remember Tiananmen. A photo of six Beijingers who gathered to light candles at a private home to mark the 26th anniversary went viral on the Internet. In May 2016, 4 Chengdu activists produced a wine label “89.64” ahead of the 28th anniversary before authorities arrested them. On June 4 that year, in front of the Nanjing Massacre museum, Shi Tingfu, a resident of Nanjing, pled passionately with passersbys to remember the Tiananmen massacre. In Hunan, on that anniversary, a dozen activists formed the numbers “6” “4” with their bodies laying on the ground. Netizens circulated the photos. On June 3rd, 2017, Guangdong activist Li Xiaoling stood on Tiananmen Square with a sign reading “June 4th March to Light.”

Today, under Xi Jinping’s draconian rule, it might be difficult to imagine any Tiananmen-style mass protests taking place in the heart of Beijing. A Tiananmen-inspired yearning for freedom and the determination to bring about democracy, however, lives on in many hearts and minds, in smaller places—in industrial zones, in village elections, or in houses turned into underground churches. 

Former Tiananmen protesters are among the lawyers, journalists, and activists who continued democracy activism and are targeted by the state, including writer Guo Feixiong and lawyer Tang Jingling, journalist Gao Yu, stock trader Yu Shiwen, and Buddhist Zen Master Wu Zeheng.      

Several young Chinese lawyers have told me that, though still teenagers in 1989, the inspiration they drew from that movement powers their challenges to the system today. In a set of interviews conducted in 2016, most of the more than a dozen Chinese activists, born in the 1990s, expressed the same view.  

Thousands of protests take place annually in China against labor abuses, forced evictions, pollution, unpaid pensions, or skyrocketing medical costs. In 2018 alone, crane operators, truck drivers, army veterans, teachers, vaccine victims’ families all staged multi-city demonstrations.

Today’s protests are distinctly different from those of 1989. The strikers and demonstrators demand specific safeguards and benefits. The 1989 movement concentrated in China’s capital and the student protesters urged the government to clean up corruption and open up for democratic reforms.  

Yet their aims and paths may not be as divergent as they appear. This is because today’s protesters have inevitably found themselves silenced, their online posts deleted, their gatherings broken up, their lawsuits thrown out, their lawyers jailed, their persistence met with prison. Not surprisingly, many of them have turned to demanding changes of the larger system.  In recent years, many activists who had focused on single issues like land, housing, or labor rights have run in local elections for the People’s Congress or village committees.  

The most serious challenge to the Party-controlled judicial system since 1989 has come from rights defense lawyers like Wang Yu, Gao Zhisheng, Li Heping, Jiang Tianyong, or Wang Quanzhang. They experienced a rude awakening when they sought in vain to use the courts to defend victims of contaminated blood transfusions, job discrimination, or persecuted Tibetans, Uyghurs, or practitioners of banned religions.

As the post-Tiananmen generation activists have achieved little by fighting within the Party-ruled system, and many suffered retaliation, democracy increasingly appeals to them as the only hope for addressing grave injustices. As Chen Jianfang, a farmer seeking fair compensation for land loss to developers in Shanghai, wrote in March 2019, 10 days before her recent detention, “I won’t give up, I’m determined to defend human rights, I’ll never stop, until genuine freedom and democracy are a reality in China.”  

Renee Xia is the director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)

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