A group of journalists supports the pro-Democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, May 17, 1989.

© 1989 REUTERS/Carl Ho

(New York) – The Chinese government should acknowledge and take responsibility for the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in June 1989, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should immediately release activists held for commemorating the occasion, and cease censoring discussions of the bloody crackdown.

“Twenty-nine years after the Tiananmen Massacre, President Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ means getting the world to forget about it. But suppressing the truth has only fueled demands for justice and accountability,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The only way to remove this stain on China is to own up to it.”

As the anniversary approaches, the Chinese government continues to deny wrongdoing in the brutal suppression of the protests. Authorities covered up the killings, failed to bring to justice the perpetrators, and persecuted victims and survivors’ family members. Under President Xi Jinping, the government has further retreated from the democratic ideals the protesters advocated and is aggressively tightening ideological control, attacking civil society groups, and imprisoning rights activists. In March 2018, Xi eliminated term limits for the presidency, spelling an ominous future for the direction of the country.

As in the past, Chinese authorities are quashing efforts to commemorate the Tiananmen crackdown:

  • Since late May, Beijing police have put a group of activists, including He Depu, Zha Jianguo and Xu Yonghai, under house arrest.
  • Activist Hu Jia said police informed him that between June 1-5 he would be taken to Qinhuangdao, 300 kilometers away from his home in Beijing.
  • In Shandong province in mid-May, authorities detained activists Li Hongwei and Yu Xinyong, accusing them of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Li and Yu were detained for two days last year for commemorating the massacre.
  • In June 2017, Beijing police detained activist Li Xiaoling after she posted photos online of her standing at Tiananmen Square and holding a sign that read “June 4th Marching to the Light.” Li was later charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Li’s lawyers alleged that Li has been tortured in custody and denied adequate medical treatment for glaucoma.
  • Activists Chen Bing, Fu Hailu, Luo Fuyu, and Zhang Junyong, detained since May 2016 for producing and selling a liquor named “Eight Liquor Six Four” – a homophone for “89.6.4,” the numerical date of the massacre – are still awaiting trial. The four have been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”
  • Sichuan-based activist Chen Yunfei, convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in March 2017, is serving a four-year sentence for organizing a memorial service for victims of the massacre.

While the last individual known to have been imprisoned for his involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests was released in 2016, many other participants have been re-incarcerated for their continuing pro-democracy work. Activists Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei are serving 10-year and nine-year sentences respectively on inciting subversion charges, while Guo Feixiong is serving a six-year sentence for protesting press censorship. Huang Qi, detained since November 2015 for “illegally leaking state secrets abroad,” is awaiting trial. Huang suffers from several health conditions for which he has not been given adequate treatment.

Other prominent participants in the Tiananmen protests have passed away in the past year. In July 2017, public intellectual and Nobel Peace Prize Laurate Liu Xiaobo, a leader in the protests who was jailed for 21 months for his role supporting the students, died from complications of liver cancer in a hospital in Liaoning province while being guarded by state security. His wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest. Dissident writer Yang Tianshui, who participated in democracy protests in Nanjing at the time, died in November 2017, three months after being released on medical parole for a brain tumor. Prior to his release, Yang was serving a 12-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

“Chinese leaders travel the world touting their ideas for ‘win-win’ human rights diplomacy and a ‘community of common destiny,’” Richardson said. “But until they account for past and present human rights abuses, those pledges are just empty propaganda promoting impunity for grave crimes.”

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 Chinese 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, 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 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 officials legally accountable for the killings. It has been unwilling to conduct an investigation into the events or release data on those who were killed, injured, forcibly disappeared, or imprisoned. The nongovernmental organization Tiananmen Mothers, consisting mostly of family members of those killed, has established the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities. Last year, more members of the Tiananmen Mothers have passed away without seeing justice, including geologist Xu Jue and music professor Wang Fandi. Xu’s 20-year-old son Wu Xiaongdong and Wang’s 19-year-old son Wang Nan were killed by troops.

Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government to mark the 29th anniversary of June 4, 1989, by addressing the human rights violations pertaining to the event. Specifically, the government should:

  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and cease the harassment and arbitrary detention of individuals who challenge the official account of June 4;
  • Meet with and apologize to members of the Tiananmen Mothers, publish the names of all who died, and appropriately compensate the families of the victims;
  • Permit an independent public inquiry into June 4, and promptly release its findings and conclusions to the public;
  • Allow the unimpeded return of Chinese citizens, exiled due to their connections to the events of 1989; and
  • Investigate all government and military officials who planned or ordered the unlawful use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, and appropriately prosecute them.