China must account for the Tiananmen Massacre

5 min read
Tiananmen Square Massacre at Victoria

The Chinese government should acknowledge and take responsibility for the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in June 1989, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately allow commemorations of the occasion in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, and cease censoring discussions of the crackdown.

“The ban on Hong Kong’s candlelight vigil speaks volumes about the Chinese government’s human rights record: that 32 years after the Tiananmen Massacre, they have only deepened repression,�? said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But suppressing the truth has only fueled demands for justice and accountability.�?  

In Hong Kong, for the second straight year, the authorities banned the annual vigil to commemorate the massacre, citing Covid-19 restrictions, even though the city has managed the pandemic well and social distancing rules have been eased. On May 31, 2021, police arrested the activist known as “Grandma Wong,�? 65, for “unauthorized assembly�? for staging a lone protest against the massacre. Another protester was fined HK$5,000 (US$645) for handing out electric candles and matchboxes marked “never surrender�? to mark the event.

Police also planned to have more than 3,000 officers to thwart any unauthorized gatherings in the city, according to media reports. In May, Joshua Wong and three young activists were convicted of “unauthorized assembly�? for marking the massacre in Victoria Park in 2020. For lighting candles and sitting down in the park, Wong was given a 10-month sentence.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements, the organizer of the Tiananmen vigil, on June 2 temporarily closed the June 4th Museum, following an inspection by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department which declared that the museum had violated the law for not having a “public entertainment�? permit.

Some pro-Beijing politicians have also claimed that the Hong Kong Alliance’s slogan, “End One-Party Dictatorship,�? violates Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Tian Feilong, an influential Beijing academic, has called for banning the group unless they remove the slogan from their official platform.

In Macau, police also banned the vigil for the second time, claiming that the event’s purpose and slogans would violate local criminal laws, including inciting subversion and defamation. In 2020, the authorities only cited Covid-19 concerns as the reason to ban the vigil.

In the mainland, as in previous years, in the weeks before the anniversary, the authorities have been on high alert across China to preempt commemorations of the massacre. They have restricted the movement and communication of members of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of relatives of Tiananmen Massacre victims. The police also forced activists across the country, including journalist Lu Yuyu, writer Zha Jianguo, activist Ji Feng, and academic Yang Shaozheng, to leave their residencies for guarded “vacations,�? prohibiting them from speaking to the media or communicating with others.

While the last individual known to have been imprisoned for their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests was released in 2016, many other participants have been re-incarcerated for their continuing pro-democracy work. Among them, Huang Qi, prominent activist and founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, is serving a 12-year sentence after being convicted in 2019 of “illegally providing state secrets abroad.�?

Huang suffers from several serious health conditions for which he has not been given adequate treatment, including kidney disease, possible emphysema, and inflammation in the lungs. Activist Chen Yunfei has been detained by Sichuan police since March. Chen served four years in prison, from 2015 to 2019, for organizing a memorial service for massacre victims.

Chinese authorities have also attempted to censor commemoration events outside of the country, Human Rights Watch said. In June 2020, following requests from Chinese authorities, Zoom, the video communications company, disrupted meetings and suspended accounts of activists based outside of China for hosting online Tiananmen commemorations via Zoom. After the incident went public, Zoom apologized for affecting users outside of China, but not for censoring users in China.

The Chinese government continues to ignore domestic and international calls for justice for the Tiananmen Massacre, and some of the sanctions that the European Union and United States imposed in response to the massacre have over the years been weakened or evaded.

The lack of a sustained, coordinated, international response to the massacre and ensuing crackdown is one factor in Beijing’s increasingly brazen abuses, including the continuing mass detention of an estimated one million Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the direct imposition of national security legislation in Hong Kong that suppresses fundamental freedoms contrary to the Basic Law and international human rights law.

The Tiananmen Massacre was precipitated by the peaceful gatherings of students, workers, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other Chinese cities in April 1989, calling for freedom of expression, accountability, and an end to corruption. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law.

On June 3 and 4, the military opened fire and killed untold numbers of peaceful protesters and bystanders. In Beijing, some citizens attacked army convoys and burned vehicles in response to the military’s violence. Robin Munro, the late China researcher for Human Rights Watch, described the scene the following day:

To my horror, when I turned round, … I saw this horrifying sight of literally thousands and thousands of PLA troops occupying every spare square inch on the steps…. [T]he massive steps of the Great Hall of the People were covered with this human sea of troops, just stationed there…The theater of the massacre was, by and large, elsewhere. It was the rest of the city, and that was where the Beijing citizens fought and died to protect their students, and also to protect the sense of civic pride and consciousness they themselves had developed in those crucial few weeks leading up to that.

Following the killings, the government carried out a national crackdown and arrested thousands for “counter-revolution�? and other criminal charges, including disrupting social order and arson.

The government has never accepted responsibility for the massacre or held any officials legally accountable for the killings. It has been unwilling to conduct an investigation into the events or release data on those who were killed, injured, forcibly disappeared, or imprisoned. Tiananmen Mothers documented the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities.

As a party to a number of international human rights treaties and as a current member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which obligates Chinese authorities to “uphold the highest standards of human rights,�? the Chinese government should urgently take the following steps with respect to the Tiananmen Massacre:

  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and cease the harassment and arbitrary detention of individuals who challenge the official account of June 4;
  • Meet with and apologize to members of the Tiananmen Mothers, publish the names of all who died, and appropriately compensate the victims’ families;
  • Permit an independent public inquiry into June 4, and promptly release its findings and conclusions to the public;
  • Allow the unimpeded return of Chinese citizens, exiled due to their connections to the events of 1989; and
  • Investigate all government and military officials who planned or ordered the unlawful use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, and appropriately prosecute them.

“Governments around the world have increasingly pushed back against Beijing’s recent human rights abuses,�? Wang said. “They need also to take stronger measure to pressure the Chinese authorities to acknowledge and take responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre.�?

China: Account for Tiananmen Massacre – Human Rights Watch

Tony Simon

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