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(New York) – The Chinese government should finally acknowledge and take responsibility for the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should release activists jailed for commemorating the occasion along with all others imprisoned in China for the peaceful exercising of their political views.

“Twenty-six years ago, the Chinese government decided that violent repression was the appropriate response to peaceful protest,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Until the government acknowledges its actions and provides redress to the many victims and their families, there is no safeguard that future protests won’t provoke a similar reaction.”

Beijing’s recent arbitrary detentions and prosecutions of 1989 protest veterans epitomize a severe new crackdown on dissent over the past two years.

Veteran journalist Gao Yu, 71, was convicted for the third time in April 2015, this time for allegedly leaking state secrets by sharing an internal Communist Party document warning against liberal values with the US-based Mirror Media Group. Authorities refused her lawyers’ request to review whether the document constituted a “state secret,” or to examine the publisher’s claim that the version they published did not come from Gao.

Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, 50, was detained on May 4, 2014, after attending a small private seminar in Beijing about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Pu has since been indicted for “creating a disturbance” and “inciting ethnic hatred”; it remains unclear when he will actually be tried.

Maverick Sichuan activist Chen Yunfei, 46, has been detained since Tomb Sweeping Day on March 25, 2015, when he commemorated the killing of two student protesters. Chen was later formally arrested for “creating a disturbance” and “inciting subversion.” The government of President Xi Jinping has detained and imprisoned over 100 activists.

People across China continue to demand the right to participate in formulating and implementing policies that affect their lives. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that there are an estimated 100,000 “mass incidents” – or protests with at least 100 people – per year.

Most of these demonstrations revolve around labor disputes, forced land seizures, evictions, and the environment. In April, for example, thousands of people in Heyuan, Guangdong Province protested against the proposed construction of a power plant that they say would further pollute the environment. There has been greater interest in civic activism, as evidenced by the rapid growth of domestic nongovernmental organizations and volunteerism, especially around the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2003, China had approximately 250,000 registered nongovernmental organizations; within a decade the number had doubled.

Social media platforms are often filled with discussions of injustices and calls for accountability, such as the recent outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed man traveling with his family in Qingan, Heilongjiang Province, or the detention in a reeducation through labor camp of a mother who had been seeking punishments for those who raped and prostituted her daughter.

The government has responded to greater demands for civic engagement with increased controls over the Internet, universities, media, and nongovernmental organizations. It has established a new National Security Commission that aims to maintain “social stability,” a well-known euphemism for stifling dissent. It has enacted or is drafting a number of state security laws that would impose significantly harsher controls over the very limited civil liberties in China. As laid out in Document Number 9, the internal Party document that journalist Gao allegedly leaked, the Party leadership has identified the freedom of the press, democracy, and other “universal values” as perils that will undermine the Party’s grip on power.

“Despite the Chinese government’s acute fears about freedom and democracy 26 years after Tiananmen, people in China are more willing than ever to embrace these ideas,” Richardson said.

Background: Bloodshed in 1989
The Tiananmen massacre was precipitated by the peaceful gatherings of students, workers, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other cities in April 1989 calling for freedom of expression, accountability, and an end to corruption. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law.

On June 3 and 4, 1989, the military opened fire and killed untold numbers of peaceful protesters and bystanders. In Beijing, some citizens attacked army convoys and burned vehicles in response to the military’s violence. Following the killings, the government implemented a national crackdown and arrested thousands of people for “counter-revolution” and other criminal charges, including disrupting social order and arson.

The government has never accepted responsibility for the massacre or held any perpetrators legally accountable for the killings. 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 nongovernmental organization Tiananmen Mothers has established the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities. Despite the government’s efforts to suppress all public discussion of the massacre, a group of 12 Chinese students studying abroad recently issued a public letter calling for accountability for the massacre.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to mark the 26th anniversary of June 4, 1989, by:

  • Respecting the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and ceasing the harassment and arbitrary detention of individuals who challenge the official account of June 4;
  • Permitting an independent public inquiry into June 4, and promptly releasing its findings and conclusions to the public;
  • Allowing the unimpeded return of Chinese citizens exiled due to their connections to the events of 1989; and
  • Investigating all government and military officials who planned or ordered the unlawful use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, and publishing the names of all those who died.

“The continued failure of the government to advance basic freedoms has wide-ranging implications for China today, fueling social problems from corruption to pollution,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government should at long last admit honestly its role in the killings so it can start dealing with the crackdown’s legacy.”

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