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Liu Xiaobo addresses the crowd at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 1, 1989.

Human Rights Activism in Post-Tiananmen China

A Tale of Brutal Repression and Extraordinary Resilience

Liu Xiaobo addresses the crowd at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 1, 1989. © 1989 Getty Images/ David Turnley

In the three decades since the Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese government's killing of an untold number of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators around June 4, 1989, human rights activists in China have made tremendous sacrifices in the pursuit of a more just and free country.

Many have been arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, or forcibly disappeared. Some died while in state custody. Some live with permanent physical ailments and mental trauma as a result of torture by the authorities. Some, after suffering years of unrelenting harassment, fled China.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders saw the protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and across major cities in the spring of 1989 as an existential threat to their rule. One lesson the CCP took away from the event was to nip any independent activism and peaceful criticism in the bud.

People fill Tiananmen Square in front of the Mausoleum of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People's Heroes in Beijing, on May 17, 1989.

For the past 30 years, Human Rights Watch has continually documented the Chinese government’s repression of activists. We covered in detail the arrests and trials of Tiananmen participants; released a report jointly with the nongovernmental organization Human Rights in China that revealed the names of 522 Tiananmen prisoners that few had known existed; and published multiple interviews with protest participants. Human Rights Watch also consistently called for the Chinese government to address the human rights violations related to the crackdown and hold those officials legally accountable for the killings.

Human Rights Watch marks this somber 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre by honoring those across the years who have struggled to stand up to power and advance the rule of law, freedom of expression, and religious freedom in China.

Pre-Beijing Olympics: Lengthy Sentences for Organizing Political Parties, Rise of the Rights Defense Movement

Student leader Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square calling for a citywide march, May 27, 1989. © 1989 AP Images / Mark Avery

Initially, in the wake of global condemnation following Tiananmen, Beijing made some efforts to present a less brutal posture to the world. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as Beijing sought to court foreign investment, gain entry to the World Trade Organization, and win the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, it gradually loosened control of some aspects of society. Government decisions such as releasing prominent political dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan to exile in 1997 and 1998 respectively, removing the provision on “counterrevolution” from the Criminal Law in 1997, and signing – though never ratifying – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998 filled civil society activists with optimism.

Yet the CCP’s zero tolerance toward organized political opposition remained unmistakably clear. When some veterans of the 1989 demonstrations attempted to form political parties, their efforts were met with lengthy prison sentences. In 1993, activist Liu Wensheng was handed a 10-year sentence for organizing the China Social Democratic Party. In 1994, democracy activist Hu Shigen was sentenced to 20 years for trying to establish the China Freedom and Democracy Party.

Exiled Chinese dissident Wang Bingzhang gestures during an interview at a Taipei hotel Sunday, March 22, 1998.  ©1998 AP Images / Eddie Shih

Some of the activists who tried to form the China Democracy Party received long prison terms. In 1998, Xu Wenli and Qin Yongmin were sentenced to 13 and 12 years respectively, and in 1999, Liu Xianbin was given a 13-year prison term. In June 2002, Chinese authorities abducted party organizer Wang Bingzhang in Vietnam and brought him back to China, where he received life in prison on espionage and terrorism charges.

While political repression persisted, the Chinese economy grew rapidly, society became more open, and people gained more education and international experiences. As a result, people across China became increasingly prepared to challenge authorities over volatile livelihood issues, such as land seizures, forced evictions, environmental degradation, and employment discrimination.

In March 2003, a young migrant worker named Sun Zhigang was beaten to death after being taken to a “custody and repatriation center” by the police for not carrying his residence permit. Sun’s death sent shock waves through the country. Three legal scholars – Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Yu Jiang – submitted a recommendation to the legislature, arguing that the custody and repatriation system violated the constitution and should be abolished. That June, the government unexpectedly did so. The legal victory brought intellectuals and activists hope for rule of law in China.

Villagers chant slogans as they gather for a protest in Wukan village, Lufeng city, in China's southern Guangdong province, December 13, 2011. © 2016 AP Images

Against such a backdrop, a loose national network of lawyers, activists, and journalists formed the “weiquan” (or “rights defense”) movement. Working within the legal and political constraints, they pushed censorship boundaries, monitored and documented human rights cases, defended victims of abuses in court, exposed official wrongdoing, and called for political reforms.

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng is pictured at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on May 31, 2012. © 2012 Reuters

But the environment for human rights activism started to deteriorate in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, as authorities expanded the domestic security apparatus and muzzled several prominent activists: in August 2006, Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-educated lawyer who documented abuses of China’s family planning law, was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.





Gao Zhisheng talks to journalists in a cave home in northwestern China's Shaanxi province. © 2015 AP Images/ Isolda Morillo


That December, human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had defended Falun Gong practitioners and underground Christians, was sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”



Hu Jia, activist and recipient of Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.





In April 2008, leading HIV/AIDS advocate Hu Jia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” Despite the harsh punishments, the three activists – and many others – all continued their activism upon release.

Zeng Jinyan, the wife of activist Hu Jia, carries their baby outside of a Beijing court, after Hu was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, April 3, 2008. © 2008 AP Images / Greg Barker
Post-Beijing Olympics: Crackdowns on Charter 08, Sichuan Earthquake Investigations, ‘Jasmine Revolution’

In the spring of 2008, prominent writer Liu Xiaobo and others drafted Charter 08, an online petition urging China’s leadership to put human rights, democracy, and the rule of law at the core of the Chinese political system. The charter, an earnest effort by activists and intellectuals to rally the society around the common cause of human rights, was signed by more than 300 people from a cross-section of society, and by several prominent figures including retired party officials and former newspaper editors.  

The Nobel certificate and medal is seen on the empty chair where this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo would have sat, as a portrait of Liu is seen in the background, during the ceremony at Oslo City Hall December 10, 2010. © 2010 Reuters
For his role in Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo was arrested in December 2008 and later sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion.” Previously, Liu had been imprisoned for 21 months for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests and again in a “re-education-through-labor” camp from 1996 to 1999 for criticizing government policies. In 2010, Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” An empty chair marked his absence at the awards ceremony in Oslo.

Wei Qinyong, who lost her 12-year-old daughter Yang Le during the May 12, 2008 earthquake, stands near the collapsed school and a banner that reads “Give Justice to the Children” in Luoshui, Sichuan province, June 8, 2008. © 2008 AP Images/ Ng Han Guan

In May 2008, a devastating earthquake shook the southwest province of Sichuan. An estimated 70,000 people died, many of them schoolchildren whose shoddily built schools collapsed. Authorities mercilessly repressed parents and activists’ demand for information about quake-related deaths and damages. Police harassed and beat renowned artist Ai Weiwei after he initiated an independent survey of the student deaths. In 2009, a court in Chengdu sentenced human rights activist Huang Qi to three years in prison in response to his investigation of poor school construction. In 2010, literary editor and environmental activist Tan Zuoren was sentenced to five years on charges of “subversion” related to his compilation of a list of children killed during the earthquake. 

In February 2011, an online appeal calling for people in China to emulate the Arab Spring uprisings resulted in small gatherings of curious onlookers in Beijing and several other cities. The authorities reacted by rounding up over a hundred of the country’s most outspoken critics, including artist Ai Weiwei, human rights lawyers Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong, and forcibly disappearing them for weeks outside of any legal procedure. Upon their release, some of those individuals reported being subjected to forced sleep deprivation, abusive interrogations, and threats while in custody. Beijing’s disproportionate response to a nonexistent “revolution” indicated a fundamental fear of independent activism.

A diorama that recreates artist Ai Weiwei’s harrowing experiences in a detention facility, shown in Venice, Italy, May 28, 2013. © 2013 AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis
Even as human rights lawyers and activists became increasingly adept at using the legal system to protect human rights, the government continued to signal its no-tolerance policy for outspoken political dissent through sham prosecutions. In December 2011, courts in Guizhou and Sichuan provinces sentenced pro-democracy activists Chen Xi and Chen Wei to 10 and 9-year prison term respectively for “inciting subversion of state power.” The convictions were based on articles they had published on various websites criticizing China’s one-party rule.


Xi Era: Clampdowns on Rights Defense Movement, Independent News Websites, Minority Rights

In November 2012, Xi Jinping ascended to power as general secretary of the CCP. His tenure as China’s top leader has been marked by ever-increasing control of all aspects of society and harsh crackdowns on human rights activism.

In July 2013, authorities arrested Xu Zhiyong, a prominent rights activist and co-founder of the New Citizen Movement, an initiative to develop civil society in China within the confines of the one-party political system. Xu was later sentenced to four years in prison.

Chinese police manhandle a foreign photographer, center, near the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, where New Citizens Movement founder Xu Zhiyong appeared for his verdict, January 26, 2014. © 2014 AP Photo/Andy Wong

In March 2014, longtime activist Cao Shunli died in a hospital in Beijing, a month after being transferred from a detention center when she fell into a coma. Cao was arbitrarily detained by police at the Beijing Airport in September 2013, while trying to leave to participate in a training session on human rights at the United Nations in Geneva.

Cao Shunli Courtesy of openDemocracy

In April 2014, the Beijing police detained veteran journalist Gao Yu for “illegally obtaining” “Document No. 9,” an internal Communist Party document warning its members against “seven perils” including “universal values,” civil society, and a free press. Gao was later sentenced to seven years in prison for leaking state secrets. The harsh crackdowns on free speech following the issuance of the document in April 2013 suggested its significance in the CCP’s ideological trajectory.

Anti-Beijing protesters hold pictures of imprisoned Chinese journalist Gao Yu during a rally outside the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, April 17, 2015. © 2016 AP Photo/Kin Cheung
Beijing’s ruthlessness on human rights activism was particularly evident in its treatment of activists from ethnic and religious minority groups. In September 2014, Ilham Tohti, a highly-regarded ethnic Uyghur economist and peaceful critic of the government, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of “separatism” – an approach he had explicitly rejected. He had worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture, which has been subject to severe repression.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, known throughout the Tibetan community for his work building schools, a monastery, and an orphanage. © 2015 Human Rights Watch


In July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinopche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, known throughout the Tibetan community for his work building schools, a monastery, and an orphanage, died in a Sichuan prison after reportedly being tortured. He had been given a suspended death sentence in 2002, commuted in 2005 to life in prison, for his alleged role in a bombing earlier that year. He was denied a lawyer of his choice, not allowed access to the evidence against him, and tried in secret.





In March 2015, authorities detained five feminists for 37 days on charge of “picking quarrels” after they planned to post signs and distribute leaflets to raise awareness about sexual harassment, sparking a widespread international outcry. In the ensuing years, women’s rights activists continued to face police harassment, intimidation, and forced eviction.

Relatives of lawyers and activists detained in the July 2015 crackdown protest in front of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing, China, July 7, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Authorities dealt the rights defense movement a severe blow in July 2015 by rounding up and interrogating without counsel about 300 rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country. While most were soon released, some received heavy sentences. In 2016, a court in Tianjin sentenced human rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng and democracy activist Hu Shigen to seven years and seven-and-a-half years in prison respectively after convicting them of “subversion.” In 2017, a Tianjin court convicted activist Wu Gan of “subversion” and sentenced him to eight years in prison. In 2019, lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced to four-and-a-half years for “subversion.”

Liu Feiyue. Source: Chinese Human Rights Defenders

Since 2016, the Chinese government has tried to eliminate the country’s few independent human rights news platforms by jailing their founders and key members. In June 2016, authorities detained citizen journalist and protest chronicler Lu Yuyu and later sentenced him to four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels.” In December 2018, Zhen Jianghua, executive director of the website Human Rights Campaign in China, was convicted of “inciting subversion” and sentenced to two years in prison. In January 2019, after over two years in detention, Liu Feiyue, founder of the website Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, was sentenced to five years for “inciting subversion.” Police detained Huang Qi, founder of the human rights website “64 Tianwang,” in November 2016. The status of Huang’s prosecution is currently unclear as authorities have kept the trial secret.

On July 13, 2017, the Chinese human rights community was stricken by a profound loss: At the age of 61 and after serving nearly 9 years of his 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion,” Nobel Peace laurate Liu Xiaobo died from complications of liver cancer while being guarded by state security. To many who have worked to improve human rights in China, Liu’s death marked dark times for dissent.

An exile Tibetan wearing a mask in the likeness of Tashi Wangchuk, stands next to a screen projecting a New York Times video during a street protest demanding his release, in Dharmsala, India.  © 2018 AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia


In May 2018, Chinese authorities sentenced Tibetan language rights activist Tashi Wangchuk to five years for “inciting separatism.” Tashi Wangchuk was detained in January 2016 after appearing in a New York Times video in which he advocated for the rights of Tibetans to learn and study in their mother tongue.





Starting in mid-2018, authorities launched a national crackdown on labor activism, detaining dozens of workers and student activists in several cities, including Yue Xin, a graduate of Peking University who had been known for her activism in China’s #MeToo movement, and Wei Zhili, an editor of the workers’ rights news website iLabour.

Cartoon drawn by Wei Zhili’s wife, Zheng Churan, and the couples’ friends. © Zheng Churan

In December 2018, police detained the pastor and scores of members of Early Rain Covenant Church, an independent Protestant church in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Pastor Wang Yi, a prominent member of China’s Christian community and a former legal scholar, and his wife, Jiang Rong, are currently in police custody, accused of “inciting subversion.” 



The Fight Goes On

Human rights activists are now enduring their worst persecution since peaceful protesters took to Tiananmen Square and streets across China in 1989. Yet, despite the suffocating political environment, the fight for a democratic, rights-respecting China continues. The spirit of freedom lives on, passing from one generation to the next.

People hold banners at a demonstration in support of factory workers of Jasic Technology, outside Yanziling police station in Pingshan district, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China August 6, 2018. © 2018 Sue-Lin Wong/Reuters

While 64-year-old Qin Yongmin is serving his 13-year sentence in a Wuhan jail for “subverting state power,” 22-year-old Yue Xin is being detained in an undisclosed location for defending worker’s rights. In October 2016, after more than 27 years behind bars, Miao Deshun, a former factory worker and the last prisoner held for the Tiananmen Square protests, was released. According to fellow prisoners, Miao had refused to admit to any wrongdoing, and as a result, was tortured and periodically put in solitary confinement.  

As prominent activist Hu Jia said, “I won’t change, because this is based on feeling. I don’t believe the Chinese Communist Party is made of iron. I have never lost faith. I don’t think the power of evil can last forever. It won’t.” Every year ahead of the Tiananmen Anniversary, Hu is sent on an enforced “vacation” outside of Beijing, during which he is closely monitored. It is one of the ways authorities silence dissent during holidays and political events – and yet, the dissenters will not be silenced.

Human Rights Watch will continue to speak out against abuses pertaining to the Tiananmen Massacre until those responsible for the killings and persecutions are held to account.

A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in this June 5, 1989 file photo. © Reuters/Arthur Tsang



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