25 Years On, Popular Demands for Expression, Justice Escalate
May 29, 2014
Xi Jinping, like his predecessors, is on futile mission to control discussions about Tiananmen and broader issues. The Chinese government only compounds the mistake of 1989 by suppressing discussion of June 4 itself, and silencing independent voices who seek to make positive contributions.
Sophie Richardson, China director

(New York) – 25 years after the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989, popular demands for accountability, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and other basic human rights in China have continued to grow. A new multimedia feature discusses the impact of the bloodshed, and also the repercussions from Beijing’s efforts to silence news of the event. 

The Chinese government continues to persecute survivors and their family members who seek accountability, and crush all discussion of the event. In the run-up to this year's anniversary, at least six individuals, including prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, academic Xu Youyu, and artist Chen Guang, have been detained for commemorating the 25th anniversary. Many other activists have been put under criminal detention  Ding Zilin, the founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group formed to press for truth and accountability of their loved ones killed in the massacre, and her husband Jiang Peikun have been forced out of their hometown Beijing ahead of the anniversary. This will be the first time the elderly couple will not be able to hold a private memorial in Beijing for their son, according to Human Rights in China.

“Xi Jinping, like his predecessors, is on futile mission to control discussions about Tiananmen and broader issues,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government only compounds the mistake of 1989 by suppressing discussion of June 4 itself, and silencing independent voices who seek to make positive contributions.”

The Tiananmen crackdown was precipitated by the mass gathering of workers, students, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and in other cities in April 1989 to peacefully demonstrate for a pluralistic political system, freedom of expression, and accountability. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law and authorizing the military to use deadly force. In Beijing, some citizens attacked army convoys and burned vehicles as the military moved through the city.

On June 3 and 4, 1989, Chinese military opened fire and killed untold numbers of unarmed civilians, many of whom did not participate in the protests. Following the killings, the government implemented a national crackdown and arrested thousands of people on charges of “counter-revolution” and other criminal charges, including disrupting social order and arson.  According to the research group Dui Hua, the last of those jailed for “counter-revolution” for more than two decades have only recently been released.

The Chinese government continues to refuse to account for the massacre or hold any perpetrators legally accountable for the killings. The government initially maintained that the crackdown was a valid response to a “counter-revolutionary incident” in which some protestors were responsible for casualties. It has refused to conduct an investigation into the events or to release data on those who were killed, injured, disappeared, or imprisoned.  Jiang Zemin, then the General Secretary  of the Chinese Communist Party, dismissed international concern about June 4 as “much ado about nothing” in 1990, though the government now refers to the incident as one of “political turmoil” (zhengzhi fengbo) rather than “counter-revolutionary” activity. The Tiananmen Mothers have established the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities.

In the years since the Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese government has maintained tight political control while allowing rapid economic growth. Although this strategy appears successful in dampening  demands for formal democracy this model has also brought on numerous problems, including rampant corruption, a wide gap between the rich and poor, and widespread land seizures and house evictions, around which the public has become increasingly vocal.

“Beijing may have thought it could diminish social and political demands by allowing people greater economic freedoms,” Richardson said. “Yet the desire for accountable and responsive government – whether it’s about June 4 or about rampant pollution or about corrupt officials – runs just as deep.”

People in China have become increasingly assertive demanding greater government accountability and participation in public affairs in recent years. Official and scholarly statistics, based on law enforcement reports, suggest there are 300-500 protests each day, with anywhere from ten to tens of thousands of participants. Some of the recent large scale protests that have rocked China include the protest against a planned chemical (PX) factory in Maoming, Guangdong Province in March 2014 and a workers’ strike over social security payments in Dongguan, Guangdong Province in April 2014. Since 2003, more people are participating in one direct legacy of 1989: the “weiquan,” or “rights defense,” movement, which seeks to use the law and media to challenge injustices. The New Citizens Movement, founded around 2012, is one part of the “rights defense” effort, and it seeks to transform society through building citizenship values.

Since the beginning of the new leadership in March 2013, President Xi Jinping has made adjustments to this model. The government has made modest changes to the system – for example, by abolishing the administrative detention system re-education through labor, loosening the “one-child” family planning policy, and calling for a broad crackdown on official corruption, in response to popular calls for change on issues important to people’s lives.

But at the same time, the Chinese government has tightened control over civil society and limited space for expression by cracking down on the internet, mass media and detaining activists, including those known for their moderate views such as New Citizens Movement founder Xu Zhiyong and Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. The continued imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the political show trial of Bo Xilai in August 2013 are also examples of the government’s fear of potential challengers and highly politicized use of the judicial system. In essence, the government has adopted limited, top-down reforms while maintaining tight rein over society, freedom of expression, and the judicial system to prevent a loss of control and minimize challenges. 

“China may now be the world’s second largest economy, but it can’t afford another 25 years of denial and repression,” Richardson said.  “Demands for accountability have grown exponentially.  Beijing needs to accept the importance of peaceful criticisms, and allowing open discussion about June 4 is the place to start.” 

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