(Washington, DC) - China’s total failure to account for the massacre of June 4, 1989 casts a pall on its efforts to project a new image and continues to spawn more abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

Eighteen years after Chinese government troops initiated a massacre of an estimated 2,000 unarmed citizens in and around Tiananmen Square and other Chinese cities on and after June 4, the Chinese government has wholly failed to account for those killings and bring justice to the victims. Instead, the government continues to harass the survivors, their families and those who dare to challenge the official whitewash of the events at Tiananmen Square.

“In the 14 months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese Communist Party wants to be seen as a modern, sophisticated nation, one governed by the rule of law,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the image the world should not forget is that of a courageous individual facing down a column of tanks, as his fate and that of thousands of other protestors remain unresolved.”

On June 3-4 1989, the Chinese government turned its troops and tanks against its own citizens, slaughtering hundreds to stop a movement of students, a handful of workers, and a few academics, writers and journalists from demonstrating peacefully for a pluralistic political system. The death toll included hundreds of civilians massed in the streets of Beijing who had tried to stop the army from reaching Tiananmen Square.

The ensuing crackdown extended to major urban centers across China and resulted in the arrest of hundreds of people on charges ranging from “counterrevolutionary” offenses to “hooliganism” including robbery, arson and assault. As recently as 2004, at least 143 individuals arrested in the wake of the June 3-4 massacre were still in prison.

China was globally condemned for its crackdown on the protesters, and several states imposed sanctions, including the ongoing European Union arms embargo. In 1990, however, then-President Jiang Zemin dismissed international condemnation of the Tiananmen Massacre as “much ado about nothing.”

China’s current Premier Wen Jiabao holds a special responsibility in ensuring justice for the June 4, 1989 victims. On May 19, 1989, Wen was chief-of-staff to then-general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, who visited the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, and was fully aware of the peaceful nature of their protest. Wen and the rest of China’s current leadership should publicly hold accountable those who made the decision to turn the People’s Liberation Army against the citizens of Beijing and who ordered the imprisonment of thousands of others throughout China.

In the run-up to each anniversary of the June 3-4 massacres, survivors and victims’ families are subjected to intrusive scrutiny by public security officials, while known dissidents are frequently put under house arrest during the same period. In Tiananmen Square itself, the normally tight security narrows to a stranglehold to prevent spontaneous protests or efforts by relatives to mourn their dead family members.

“What kind of Olympic host marks the annual anniversary of a brutal massacre by persecuting victims’ families and detaining dissidents?” Richardson said. “Beijing – and by extension, the 2008 Olympic Games – will remain tarnished by this legacy until the Chinese government provides a complete and truthful account of what happened in June 1989.”

Over the last 18 years, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Chinese government to:

  • overturn the 1989 verdict labeling the movement a “counterrevolutionary rebellion;”
  • 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;
  • cease its harassment and imprisonment of the survivors, family members, and scholars who demand state accountability for what happened at Tiananmen;
  • formally exonerate or initiate new and fair trials, attended by international observers, for all those convicted of crimes in the aftermath of June 4; and
  • issue a complete list of those who died, those who were injured, and those who went to prison, as no such lists are publicly available.

None of these steps has been taken.

“If the Chinese government wants to make its preferred image the reality, it’s time to stop persecuting those who dare to demand justice and start prosecuting those responsible for the violence of June 1989,” said Richardson.

Human Rights Watch has raised its concerns about Tiananmen in numerous documents since 1991, including:

1991: Off Limits: Censorship and Corruption

1995: China: Keeping the Lid on Demands for Change

1996: China: Slamming the Door on Dissent

1997: China: Whose Security? “State Security” in China’s New Criminal Code

1999: Perspectives on Tiananmen Square: Tang Boqiao

1999: Perspectives on Tiananmen Square: Liu Binyan

1999: Perspectives on Tiananmen Square: Zhang Weiguo

1999: Perspectives on Tiananmen Square: Wang Juntao

1999: Perspectives on Tiananmen Square: Chen Yizi

1999: Perspectives on Tiananmen Square: Wang Chaohua

1999: Tiananmen Tenth Anniversary Victims Compile New Evidence of June Fourth Crimes

1999: Chinese Government Must Reverse Tiananmen Verdict

2004: China: Stifling the Memory of Tiananmen

2004: Tiananmen, 15 Years On

2004: China: Release Whistleblowing Doctor

2004: China: Whistleblowing Doctor Home but Not Free

2005: Tiananmen 16 Years Later