China: No Justice 33 Years after Tiananmen Massacre

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This composite image shows the “Goddess of Democracy” statue at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; and the site after the statue was removed on December 24, 2021.
© 2021 Daniel Suen and Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – Chinese authorities have over the past year stepped up the harassment and persecution of activists for commemorating the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Human Rights Watch said today. The Chinese government should acknowledge and take responsibility for the mass killing of pro-democracy demonstrators.

Over the past year, Hong Kong authorities have arrested and prosecuted people for trying to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre. Twenty-six pro-democracy activists – including Joshua Wong, media mogul Jimmy Lai, journalist Gwyneth Ho, and former legislators Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, and Andrew Wan – were arrested for participating or “inciting” others to participate in the 2020 vigil honoring massacre victims. They received suspended sentences or prison terms of between 4 and 15 months.

“Hong Kong activists are now being imprisoned for commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre anniversary,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But if history is any guide, President Xi Jinping’s repression will not erase the memory of Tiananmen from the minds of China’s people.”

A court in January 2022 sentenced human rights lawyer Chow Hang-tung to 15 months in prison for participating and inciting others to participate in the 2021 Tiananmen vigil. Chow had already been serving a 12-month sentence for participating in the 2020 vigil. Chow was the vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement of China, the organizer of the annual vigil. Hong Kong authorities banned the vigil in Victoria Park in 2020 and 2021. In September 2021, the police raided the premises of the Alliance-run June 4th Museum, which the authorities forced to close three months earlier.

Hong Kong’s universities have removed Tiananmen memorials. In December 2021, the University of Hong Kong removed “Pillar of Shame,” a large sculpture commemorating the massacre victims, from the university premises. The Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt tried to reclaim the artwork but no shipping companies wanted to be involved, citing fear of retaliation by the authorities. University students protested the removal by holding an “invisible” flash mob at the sculpture’s original site. The Chinese University of Hong Kong and City University of Hong Kong removed “Goddess of Democracy” statues, which were modeled after the original statue erected by students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Lingnan University also removed a Tiananmen wall relief.

In the mainland, as in previous years, the authorities in the weeks before the anniversary have preempted commemorations of the massacre. They have restricted the movement and communication of members of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of relatives of Tiananmen Massacre victims, and many activists, such as Hu Jia, Gao Yu, and Zhang Lifan. You Weijie and Zhang Xianling, whose husband and son were killed in the crackdown respectively, said authorities blocked overseas calls to their cellphones.

In July 2021, a court in Hubei province sentenced activist Yin Xu’an to four-and-a-half years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The authorities used as evidence against Yin a photo alluding to the anniversary that he had posted on Twitter. In February 2022, Yin was hospitalized after suffering a stroke.

In October, Guangdong authorities sentenced activist Zhang Wuzhou to two-and-a-half years in prison for staging a lone protest to commemorate the massacre. In December, a Sichuan court sentenced Chen Yunfei, an activist who took part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989, to four years in prison. Chen had previously served four years in prison, from 2015 to 2019, for organizing a memorial service for massacre victims. Huang Qi, a prominent activist and Tiananmen protester, is serving a 12-year sentence after being convicted in 2019 of “illegally providing state secrets abroad.”

In May, Beijing authorities eased Covid-19 restrictions at universities in the city to avoid the possibility that protests over virus-control measures would be linked to the Tiananmen anniversary. The authorities also suspended same-day reservations for visiting the Tiananmen Square between May 25 and June 15, citing risks from the pandemic.

Chinese authorities have also attempted to intimidate Tiananmen student leaders outside of China. In March, the United States Department of Justice revealed that five people acting as agents of the Chinese government had stalked and harassed US-based critics of the government, including Tiananmen student leader Xiong Yan, who is running for the US House of Representatives.

The Chinese government has long ignored domestic and international calls for justice for the Tiananmen Massacre, and some of the sanctions that the European Union and US imposed in response have over the years been weakened or evaded. The lack of a sustained, coordinated, international response to the massacre and ensuing crackdown is one factor in Beijing’s increasingly brazen human rights violations, including the mass detention of an estimated one million Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the direct imposition of national security legislation in Hong Kong that suppresses fundamental freedoms.

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, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers fired upon 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. Robin Munro, the late China researcher for Human Rights Watch, described the scene the following day:

To my horror, when I turned round … I saw this horrifying sight of literally thousands and thousands of PLA troops occupying every spare square inch on the steps…. [T]he massive steps of the Great Hall of the People were covered with this human sea of troops, just stationed there.…The theater of the massacre was, by and large, elsewhere. It was the rest of the city, and that was where the Beijing citizens fought and died to protect their students, and also to protect the sense of civic pride and consciousness they themselves had developed in those crucial few weeks leading up to that.

Following the killings, the government carried out a nationwide crackdown and arrested thousands of people on “counter-revolution” and other criminal charges, including arson and disrupting social order.

The government has never accepted responsibility for the massacre or held any officials legally accountable for the killings. It has been unwilling to investigate the events or release data on those who were killed, injured, forcibly disappeared, or imprisoned. Tiananmen Mothers documented the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities.

As a party to a number of international human rights treaties and as a current member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which obligates China to “uphold the highest standards of human rights,” the Chinese government should urgently take the following steps with respect to the Tiananmen Massacre:

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 the Tiananmen Massacre;
Meet with and apologize to members of the Tiananmen Mothers, publish the names of all who died, and appropriately compensate the victims’ families;
Permit an independent public inquiry into Tiananmen and its aftermath, and promptly publish the findings and conclusions;
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 demonstrators, and appropriately prosecute them.

“Three decades of impunity for Tiananmen have emboldened Chinese leaders to commit crimes against humanity,” Wang said. “As the list of Beijing’s victims grows ever longer, governments and the United Nations should pursue accountability and seek justice for the Tiananmen Mothers and many others.”

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