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(New York) - The Chinese government's refusal to take responsibility for the massacre of unarmed civilians in June 1989 laid the foundation for the state impunity behind the current crackdown on dissent, Human Rights Watch said today.

For 22 years, the Chinese government has covered up the Tiananmen massacre and persecuted survivors, victims' relatives, and those who challenge the government's narrative of June 1989. That repression and its aftermath paved the way for the pre-emptive crackdown on activists and critics in the wake of the popular uprisings in the Middle East this year, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Chinese government's efforts to silence perceived sources of ‘instability' since mid-February are eerily reminiscent of the campaign of denial about the Tiananmen massacre," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "By refusing to repudiate the military crackdown on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government effectively says that the same brutal strategy remains on the table."

Just weeks after the Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo became the world's sole imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in December 2010, the Chinese leadership began an assault against government critics. Since February 16, 2011, dozens of lawyers, civil society activists, and bloggers have been detained on criminal charges by state authorities, while at least 20 others have been the victims of enforced disappearance. Between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to an array of repressive measures, ranging from police summonses to house arrests. The government has also tightened internet censorship, forced several liberal newspaper editors to step down, and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing.

The Tiananmen Mothers, a nongovernmental group of relatives of Tiananmen massacre victims that has compiled a list of at least 203 people killed in the June 1989 crackdown, issued an essay on May 31, 2011, linking the Tiananmen killings and subsequent cover-up to China's current wave of repression. "The situation since February of this year has been the worst since June Fourth," an English-language translation says. "It has been the harshest period since June 4, 1989. Silence has reigned across the country."

The Tiananmen massacre was precipitated by mass gatherings of workers, students, and others in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and other cities in April 1989 to demonstrate peacefully for a pluralistic political system. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law and authorizing the military to use deadly force.

In response, units of the Chinese military in Beijing and other cities on and around June 3 and 4  shot and killed an untold number of unarmed civilians, many of whom were not connected to the protests. Some people attacked army convoys and burned vehicles as the military moved through Beijing. The 1989 crackdown extended to major urban centers across China and included the arrests of thousands of people on charges of fomenting "counter-revolution" and on criminal charges, including disrupting social order and arson.

The Chinese government has refused to account for those killings or to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Chinese Communist Party initially justified the bloody crackdown as a valid response to a "counter-revolutionary incident," later revising its assessment to say it was a "political disturbance." The Chinese government has flatly refused to issue a list of those killed, "disappeared," or imprisoned, and has never published verifiable casualty figures. The government has also consistently stifled any public discussion of the June 1989 massacre and its aftermath.

The estimated dozen or so Chinese citizens still imprisoned in connection to the events of June 1989 include Miao Deshun (苗德顺) , who was 25 years old when arrested that year on arson charges in connection with the protests. Fellow prisoners have said that Miao strongly resisted admitting guilt and was frequently beaten by guards.  Miao's sentence will not be completed until September 15, 2018.

Chinese citizens who remain "disappeared" since mid-February 2011 and thus denied the protection of due legal process and are highly vulnerable to torture in custody, include:

Ceng Renguang (曾仁广), a Beijing-based human rights activist, missing since February 22
Hu Di (胡荻), a Beijing-based blogger and writer, missing since March 13
Hu Mingfen (胡明芬), an artist and accountant to activist Ai Weiwei, missing since April 8
Lan Ruoyu (蓝若宇), a Chongqing-based graduate student, missing since February 27
Liu Dejun (刘德军), a Beijing-based blogger, missing since February 27
Liu Shihui (刘士辉), a Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer, who disappeared after being brutally beaten by a group of unidentified people at a bus stop on February 20
Liu Zhenggang (刘正刚), a designer who works with Ai Weiwei, missing since around April 1 
Wen Tao (文涛), a former journalist and Ai Weiwei's assistant, missing since April 3
Yuan Xinting (袁新亭), a Guangzhou-based editor and activist, missing since early March
Zhang Haibo (张海波), a Shanghai-based blogger, missing since February 20
Zhang Jinsong (张劲松), Ai Weiwei's driver, missing since April 10
Zhang Yongpan (张永攀), a Beijing-based legal activist, missing since April 14                           
Zhou Li (周莉), a Beijing-based activist, missing since March 27
Zou Guilan (邹桂兰), a Wuhan-based petitioner, missing since April 17

"The recent crackdown speaks volumes for the Chinese government's contempt for rule of law, and the heavy-handed responses to protests in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere show the government is no more willing than it was two decades ago to peacefully resolve popular discontent," Richardson said. "There is little reason to believe the lethal response to peaceful protests in 1989 could not happen again."

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