Some 22 years ago, Miao Deshun was a 25-year-old Beijing student arrested for "arson" in the aftermath of the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre - in which hundreds of peaceful, unarmed protesters were killed by units of China's People's Liberation Army. Those killings were precipitated by mass gatherings of workers, students and others in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and other cities in April 1989 - to demonstrate peacefully for a pluralistic political system.

That violence has been followed by more than two decades of official cover-up and persecution of survivors, victims' relatives and those who challenge the government's account of the events. Like many of the thousands of people arrested in the Tiananmen massacre's aftermath - on spurious charges of fomenting "counter-revolution" or on criminal charges such as "disrupting social order" - Miao has consistently maintained his innocence while enduring frequent physical abuse at the hands of his guards.

Now just one of an estimated dozen or so Tiananmen-era prisoners still behind bars, Miao has another seven long years of captivity ahead of his scheduled 2018 release date. But two decades after Tiananmen, China's government is victimising a new generation of Chinese citizens for demanding the rights and freedoms embodied in the country's laws and constitution. Just weeks after Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo became the world's first imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in December 2010, the government - spooked by the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa - targeted domestic activists and critics.

What makes this current crackdown eerily similar to that of the Tiananmen era is the government's blatant disregard for rule of law, in order to stave off perceived threats to its 61-year monopoly on power. Since mid-February - dozens of lawyers, civil society activists and bloggers have been detained on criminal charges by state authorities. Between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to an array of repressive measures, ranging from police summonses to house arrests.

The government has also tightened internet censorship, forced several liberal newspaper editors to step down and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing. The lawlessness of this current campaign is highlighted by at least 20 enforced disappearances of other human rights defenders, artists and critics - who are, therefore, placed outside the legal system and highly vulnerable to torture in custody.

These abuses are not isolated expressions of vindictiveness by the ruling Communist Party. They are, instead, the malign legacy of two decades of state impunity for the violence, show trials and cover-ups of the tragic events of June 1989. This current crackdown - and heavy-handed reaction to protests and ethnic unrest in Tibet in March 2008, in Xinjiang in July 2009 and last week in Inner Mongolia - reflects the same contempt for rule of law that enabled the abuses of June 1989.

That view is shared by the Tiananmen Mothers, a non-governmental group of relatives of massacre victims that has compiled a list of at least 203 people killed in 1989. The group draws a direct line between the Tiananmen killings and subsequent cover-up of China's current wave of repression. "The situation, since February of this year, has been the harshest period since June 4, 1989," it said in a recent report. "Silence has reigned across the country."

The international community - particularly China's main bilateral partners such as the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom - has an obligation to speak out about the Chinese government's silencing of dissent and should demand an end to such repression. That can be done by signaling that the current style of engagement with the Chinese government on human rights is flawed and not producing tangible results. Instead of toothless and marginalised bilateral human rights dialogues, in which form trumps substance, human rights need to be put back onto the agendas of ongoing bilateral discussions of key strategic and economic issues - between China and its key bilateral partners.

Pushing back against the Chinese government's repressive reflexes does not only provide needed succor to its victims, but is a necessary defense of rule of law -and its qualities of fair play, predictability and transparency - as a baseline foundation for long-term mutually beneficial bilateral economic and trade ties. A failure to challenge the Chinese government's human rights abuses will only ensure new victims of the toxic legacy of the Tiananmen massacre. Phelim Kine is a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Phelim Kine is a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.