Two Decades Later, Demands for Human Rights Still Suppressed
June 1, 2010
Not only has the Chinese government wholly failed to account for the June 1989 killings, but civil society advocates and peaceful critics continue to face routine repression for advocating rights guaranteed by China’s own constitution.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director

(New York) - The Chinese government should admit to the massacre of unarmed civilians in June 1989, release the estimated 20 Tiananmen-era prisoners improperly arrested and convicted at that time, and free other government critics jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

More than two decades after Chinese army troops initiated a massacre of an estimated 2,000 unarmed people around Beijing's Tiananmen Square and other Chinese cities on and after June 3-4, 1989, some Chinese citizens continue to be persecuted for advocating support for universal human rights and freedoms.

"Not only has the Chinese government wholly failed to account for the June 1989 killings," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, "but civil society advocates and peaceful critics continue to face routine repression for advocating rights guaranteed by China's own constitution."

On June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese government turned its troops and tanks against its own citizens to suppress a movement of students, workers, academics, writers, and journalists, demonstrating peacefully for a pluralistic political system. The death toll included hundreds of ordinary Chinese who massed in the streets of Beijing to stop the army from reaching Tiananmen Square.  Although the Chinese government has over the past two decades released the majority of the thousands of people imprisoned for participation in the June 1989 protests, it has consistently refused to provide a list of those killed, "disappeared," or imprisoned in June 1989.

The government has failed to publish verifiable casualty figures, quashed all public discussion of June 1989, and continues to victimize survivors, victims' families, and others who challenge the official version of events. The Chinese government has also consistently rejected calls by Human Rights Watch and concerned foreign governments for a transparent and impartial investigation into the 1989 massacre; accountability for those who ordered soldiers to open fire on demonstrators; compensation to victims and family members; release of those still in prison; and accounting for those who are victims of enforced disappearance.

Today secrecy and obfuscation still characterize the government's response to episodes of mass protests.   In the aftermath of unrest in Tibet in March 2008 and in Xinjiang in July 2009, the Chinese government went far beyond its legitimate right to persecute protesters who had committed violent acts and arbitrarily detained and unfairly prosecuted ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs.  In Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch also documented enforced disappearances in which Chinese security forces detained people then denied holding them and failed to disclose their whereabouts.  The government also condones "black jails" - a system of secret, unlawful detention facilities where abuses are rife and which ensnare thousands of citizens annually in Beijing alone.

Contrary to what the government promised the international community, since the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and association remain sharply curtailed, and activists still face retaliation. During this period, judicial authorities have disbarred human rights lawyers; government agencies including municipal tax authorities have stripped nongovernmental organizations of their ability to operate; and Chinese government officials and security forces continue to seriously restrict the freedom of expression and association of citizens who attempt work collectively to assert their legal rights and freedoms.

Chinese citizens who protest such violations are, like those who demand the truth about June 1989, routinely persecuted by their government. On December 25, 2009, a Beijing court sentenced Liu Xiaobo to an 11-year prison term on spurious "subversion" charges for his role in drafting and circulating Charter '08, an online petition calling for human rights and the rule of law in China. The text of Charter '08 included a direct reference to the June 4 events, as an example of the "long trail of human rights disasters" caused by the Communist Party of China's monopoly on power.  On February 10, 2010, a Beijing court rejected Liu's appeal of that sentence. Liu was transferred out of Beijing to Liaoning prison in northeast China last week.  One of China's best-known intellectual critics, Liu spent two years in prison for his role in supporting the Tiananmen students. Liu also prevented more bloodshed by successfully negotiating with the army the evacuation of the last remaining students on Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4, 1989.

Gao Zhisheng is a lawyer who took on some of China's most controversial causes by defending coal miners and underground Christians. Gao was the victim of an enforced disappearance by security forces in February 2009. After more than a year of official denials regarding Gao's location and wellbeing, Gao re-emerged in his Beijing apartment in early April 2010 but vanished again days later, apparently back into official custody.  Gao's location, health, and circumstances remain unknown.

Zhao Lianhai was tried on March 30, 2010, and faces a possible prison term of up to five years on spurious charge of "provoking disorder" for helping to establish a grassroots advocacy group, Home for Kidney Stones Babies. That organization rallied the parents of the thousand of child victims of China's melamine-tainted milk scandal of 2008 to demand compensation and the designation of an official day of remembrance for the 6 deaths and approximately 300,000 people sickened.

The Chinese government is also subjecting human rights defenders and civil society organizations to intensifying intimidation.  In late 2009, the Beijing judicial authorities refused to renew the professional licenses of about a dozen of China's most prominent civil rights lawyers without giving any reason. That refusal has left them unable to practice law. Two Chinese lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, currently face a permanent ban on their right to practice law after an April 21, 2010 trial on charges of "disrupting the order of the court." Those charges stem from an April 2009 trial in which they acted as defense attorneys for a follower of the banned spiritual movement Falungong.

All references to June 4, 1989, and its violent suppression remain censored in the country. In addition, China's censors continue to tightly control the activities of China's journalists, bloggers, and estimated 404 million Internet users. At least 24 Chinese journalists are in prison on ambiguous charges including "inciting subversion" and "revealing state secrets." The Chinese government prohibits China's Internet users' access to networking features including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. On March 22, 2010, Google ended its years of complicity with China's Internet censorship regime when it shut down its Google.cn search engine. Google made that decision in the face of Chinese government intransigence to Google's requests to cease mandatory self-censorship of its China search engine. On May 29, 2010 the Chinese government moved to tighten its grip on freedom of expression on the Internet by pressuring Internet companies to pledge to showcase "revolutionary spirit" and "red culture" on their websites.

On the 21st anniversary of the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Human Rights Watch again urges the Chinese government to:

  • Publicly recognize that the June 1989 massacre is a deeply divisive source of pain and frustration even within the ranks of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, by providing redress to the victims;
  • Cease the harassment, arrest, and imprisonment of survivors, family members, and scholars who demand state accountability for Tiananmen abuses;
  • Release the estimated 20 Tiananmen-era prisoners improperly arrested and convicted immediately after June 1989; and
  • Issue a complete list of those who died or were injured, and those who were imprisoned, as no such lists are publicly available.

In addition, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government to cease its more recent persecution of contemporary critics and human rights defenders.

"That Chinese citizens continue to risk imprisonment or worse in pursuit of the same rights advocated by the peaceful demonstrators of June 1989 underscores the need for the government to tolerate criticism," said Richardson.  "Criminalizing and persecuting dissent is out of step with China's ambition to be a respected member of the international community."

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