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China: New Leadership Should Address Tiananmen Legacy

Commitments to Rule of Law Empty Without Justice for Past Abuses

(New York) – President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders should demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law by acknowledging the government’s responsibility for the massacre of unarmed civilians 24 years ago, and by allowing commemorations of the anniversary, Human Rights Watch said today.  

More than two decades after the deadly crackdown, the Chinese government continues to deny wrongdoing in the suppression of the Tiananmen protests. The government has covered up the killings, failed to bring to justice the perpetrators, persecuted victims and survivors’ family members, and maintained tight control over freedoms of assembly and expression.

“Chinese leaders continue to try to simply expunge Tiananmen from the history books,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director. “But the new leadership can choose to act differently and distinguish itself from its predecessors. A good start would be to ensure that family members and activists can commemorate the events of 1989 without fear of reprisals.” 


In the run-up to this month’s 24th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government has tightened control over activist relatives of victims. Zhang Xianling, a member of the Tiananmen Mothers, a nongovernmental group made up of relatives of people who disappeared or were killed during the crackdown, was barred from leaving for Hong Kong to attend an event ahead of the anniversary. Other outspoken activists are also targeted during this “sensitive period.” For example, Tang Jingling, a Guangzhou rights lawyer, was taken away from his home by the police, according to media and nongovernmental organizations’ reports.

The Chinese government has stifled any discussion of the demonstrations and aftermath in the mass media and educational institutions, and systematically censored the internet for date signifiers, including 6/4 and 89 – and even obscure references designed to avoid scrutiny, such as the fake date of “May 35.”

According to media reports, in recent weeks the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee issued a document on the “seven taboos,” a gag order to universities directing them to avoid discussions of certain subjects, including “universal values” and the Party’s past wrongs. Another document issued jointly by the Party’s Central Organization department, Propaganda department, and the Ministry of Education’s party committee at around the same time calls on universities to strengthen the “ideological education” of young lecturers. University students played a major role in the 1989 protests.

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. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law and authorizing the military to use deadly force.

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 massacre, the government arrested thousands of people on charges of “counter-revolution” and other criminal charges, including disrupting social order and arson.  According to the research body Dui Hua, the last of those jailed for “counter-revolution” for more than two decades have only just been released. 

The Chinese government has refused 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,” and stressed that some protestors attacked army convoys and burned military vehicles, resulting in casualties. It has refused to conduct an investigation into the events or to release data on those who were killed, injured, disappeared, or imprisoned, though it now refers to the incident as one of “political turmoil” (zhengzhi fengbo) rather than “counter-revolutionary” activity. The group Tiananmen Mothers has established the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities.

After the massacre, the government passed the 1989 Law on Assembly, Procession, and Demonstration (the Assembly Law), which outlines a series of restrictive requirements that effectively bar citizens from exercising the right. For example, under the regulations, all demonstrations must be approved by the police. In practice, however, police in China rarely approve public protests, particularly ones that seem likely to be critical of the government. In the lead-up to the 24th anniversary, activists were detained and harassed for applying to hold public assemblies to commemorate the occasion.

For many young participants in the pro-democracy protests in 1989, the events left an indelible mark on their lives and spurred them to become long-term activists, for which they have paid a high price. Liu Xiaobo, a lecturer turned protest leader in 1989, became one of China’s best known dissidents and is now serving a 12-year sentence in prison for “inciting subversion.” His wife, Liu Xia, is under unlawful house arrest in the couple’s home in Beijing. Chen Wei, a student leader of the 1989 protests, went on to document human rights abuses in Sichuan Province and was sentenced in December 2011 to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion.”

Chen Xi, a university staff member in Guizhou Province and a protest leader in 1989, became an organizer of the Guizhou Human Rights Forum and was imprisoned in December 2011 for ten years on charges of “inciting subversion.” All three experienced their first imprisonments in 1989 as part of the government’s nationwide crackdown on the pro-democracy protests.

“Government denial and repression make it impossible for the wound of Tiananmen to heal,” Richardson said. “Justice and accountability have been critical to resolving countries’ tragic histories all over the world – the question now is whether Xi Jinping is brave enough to face that challenge.”

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