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Dong Shengkun weeps as he recalls being present at the scene seen in the photo when tanks ran down students taking part in the 1989 pro-democracy protests during an interview in Beijing on April 28, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

(New York) – The Chinese government should take responsibility for the massacre of an untold number of pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should cease all harassment of activists and families of victims for commemorating the occasion.

On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Human Rights Watch is publishing profiles of those who have advocated for greater freedom and justice, despite extraordinary oppression over the years.

“Thirty years after the Tiananmen Massacre, Chinese authorities have not acknowledged the atrocity or provided justice for the victims and their families,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The whitewash of Tiananmen and heightened repression across China have fueled activists’ determination to fight for human rights.”

In the run up to the anniversary, authorities have been on high alert across the country to preempt commemorations of the event:

  • Since late May, authorities have forced activists across the country to leave their hometowns for guarded “vacations.” In Beijing, on May 28, activist Hu Jia was taken to Qinhuangdao, a port city nearly 200 miles from his home in Beijing.
  • Since late May, authorities have put under house arrest or restricted the movement and communication of several members of Tiananmen Mothers, a nongovernmental group of relatives of Tiananmen Massacre victims, including Zhang Xianling, 81, and Ding Zilin, 82, whose sons were killed in the crackdown.
  • On May 17, Sichuan police detained Deng Chuanbin, an independent filmmaker, for tweeting a photo alluding to the massacre.
  • On May 16, Anhui police detained dissident and Tiananmen protester Shen Liangqing, accusing him of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
  • In April, a Sichuan court handed down a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence to activist Chen Bing. Chen, alongside Fu Hailu, Luo Fuyu, and Zhang Jinyong, were detained in 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. The other three were given suspended sentences. However, upon release, police required the trio to wear electronic wrist monitors at all times.

The Tiananmen Massacre remains one of the most censored topics on the Chinese internet. A 2019 University of Toronto and University of Hong Kong study found that at least 3,237 key words referencing the massacre are censored. In April, authorities issued a censorship directive requiring websites to remove a promotional video of the camera company Leica, which featured the famous “Tank Man” image. In the same month, a 1990 Cantopop song, “Human’s Path,” was scrubbed from Chinese online music stores, including Apple Music, even though the lyrics only reference Tiananmen indirectly.

While Miao Deshun, the last person 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. They include:

  • Liu Xianbin: Liu was a student at Renmin University in Beijing when he participated in the Tiananmen Square protests. In March 2011, a Sichuan court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for “inciting subversion” for publishing articles critical of the government and organizing events discussing political issues. In 1991, Liu had been given a 30-month sentence on “counterrevolutionary” charges for protesting the crackdown. From 1999 to 2008, Liu was imprisoned for “inciting subversion” after he tried to organize the China Democracy Party.
  • Chen Wei: Chen took part in the Tiananmen protests when he was a student at Beijing Institute of Technology, for which he was imprisoned until December 1990. In 2011, a Sichuan court sentenced him to nine years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion” for his articles critical of Chinese authorities. From 1992 to 1997, Chen had served five years in prison for trying to establish the China Freedom and Democracy Party.
  • Chen Bing: Chen Bing, the twin brother of Chen Wei, was a student at Southwest Petroleum University in Sichuan province and organized protests there in solidarity with students in Beijing. In April 2019, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for making a liquor to commemorate Tiananmen.
  • Chen Xi: Chen was an administrative worker at Jinzhu University in Guiyang, Guizhou province in 1989. In support of the nationwide democracy movement, he established the Patriotic and Democratic Union in Guiyang, for which he was imprisoned for three years. In 2011, a Guizhou court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for “inciting subversion” for his peaceful criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Previously, from 1995 to 2005, Chen served 10 years in prison for organizing the China Democracy Party.
  • Huang Qi: During Tiananmen, Huang, then a businessman in Chengdu, participated in local protests and provided financial support to student demonstrators. Huang later founded the human rights website 64 Tianwang. He has been detained since November 2016 for “illegally leaking state secrets abroad.” Huang had been imprisoned from 2000-2005 on subversion charges and from 2008-2011 for “illegally holding state secrets.” Huang suffers from several health conditions for which he has not been given adequate treatment.
  • Li Bifeng: Li was a poet in Chengdu in 1989. He organized protests in the city in support of students in Beijing. He was subsequently given a five-year prison term on “counterrevolutionary” charges. In 2013, a Sichuan court sentenced him to 10 years in prison on dubious “contract fraud” charges. From 1998 to 2005, Li had served seven years in prison on fraud charges. Human rights organizations believe he was actually prosecuted for informing international human rights groups about the violent dispersal by police of massive worker protests across Sichuan province.
  • Zhou Yongjun: In 1989, Zhou, a student at the China University of Political Science and Law, was a leader of the Tiananmen protests. He was one of the three students photographed kneeling on the steps of the Great Hall of the People pleading to Party leaders to initiate political reforms. Zhou was subsequently imprisoned for two years. In August 2018, Guangxi police detained Zhou and charged him with “inciting subversion.” Previously, he served three years in a Reeducation-Through-Labor camp from 1998 to 2001, and five years in a Sichuan prison from 2010 to 2015 on fraud charges.
  • Chen Shuqing: In 1989, Chen, then a graduate student at Hangzhou University in Zhejiang province, took part in the protests in the city. Since September 2014, Chen has been serving a 10-and-a-half-year sentence after being convicted of “subversion.” From 2006 to 2010, he had served four years for “inciting subversion.” Both convictions concern online articles he published criticizing the Chinese Communist Party.

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.

Human Rights Watch urges the government of President Xi Jinping to mark the 30th 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.
“The spirit of the Tiananmen movement continues to burn in the hearts of veterans of 1989 and younger generations of activists who fight for a more just China,” Wang said. “President Xi Jinping should acknowledge, even in the face of extraordinary persecution, that demands for accountability and human rights remain strong.”

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