Skip to main content

China, the world remembers Tiananmen massacre

By Sophie Richardson
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Ousted General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, dies at age 73 on April 15, 1989. The next day, thousands of students gather at Tiananmen Square to mourn him -- Hu had become a symbol of reform for the student movement. A week later thousands more marched to Tiananmen Square -- the start of an occupation that would end in a tragic showdown. Ousted General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, dies at age 73 on April 15, 1989. The next day, thousands of students gather at Tiananmen Square to mourn him -- Hu had become a symbol of reform for the student movement. A week later thousands more marched to Tiananmen Square -- the start of an occupation that would end in a tragic showdown.
HIDE CAPTION
Timeline: Tiananmen Square crackdown
Nil by mouth
Tiananmen sit in
Gorbachev visits
Price of protest
Witness to discontent
Biker backing
Martial law
Student-teacher relations
Victory sign
Monument to Heroes
Mass protest
Troop movements
Crackdown
Caught in the middle
Students fight back
Punishment
Hong Kong vigil
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre
  • Sophie Richardson: When will China's leaders stop whitewashing the event?
  • She says Beijing's tactics of suppression and crackdown breed discontent
  • Richardson: Brave Chinese activists are still trying to defend human rights

Editor's note: Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch, an organization that advocates for human rights worldwide. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Here's an uncomfortable truth confronting Chinese President Xi Jinping: It's 2014, but the pro-democracy, pro-rights sentiments that manifested across China as demonstrations in 1989 are still alive and well.

For 25 years, the Chinese government has tried to expunge the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre from history to deny people inside the country any knowledge of the event. And as the second largest economy in the world, Olympic host, and U.N. Security Council member, Beijing has also maintained to the outside world that June 4 is "much ado about nothing" and a "strictly internal affair."

Beijing's strategy of suppression has proved successful in some quarters. Many in China have generally focused on getting ahead economically while staying away from politics. But in other quarters, the strategy has produced the opposite outcome, fueling domestic demands for accountability and ongoing attention to China's abysmal human rights record.

Sophie Richardson
Sophie Richardson

"Harmonious society," "social stability," "stability maintenance" -- these are the watchwords of the current Chinese government. But imposed stability is oxymoronic.

Not a week goes by without hundreds of protests over land or housing issues in rural areas, and environmental or infrastructure projects in major urban areas.

China's security forces and judiciary systems are using increasingly heavy-handed tactics to track and suppress all manners of peaceful expressions in ethnic minority regions. Uyghur Muslims are prohibited from wearing beards. Prosecutions are set up against those who know Tibetans who self-immolated.

Tiananmen Square witnesses recount horrors
Human rights in China after Tiananmen
China steps up anti-terror measures

Despite a proliferation of laws, there are few avenues for public feedback, let alone redress or debate without fear of reprisal for ordinary citizens. The combination of repression and denial of justice are clearly breeding more, not less, discontent in China.

Every year in the weeks leading up to June 4, critics of the Chinese government anticipate higher-than-usual scrutiny, ranging from arbitrary impositions of house arrest to people being taken to police stations to "have tea."

This year's crackdown started early and ferociously. In early May, roughly a dozen people gathered in a Beijing apartment to discuss Tiananmen. They sent a photograph of the group and a brief summary of the discussion to friends and contacts. Within a few days, five of them, well-known human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, academics Xu Youyu and Hao Jian, blogger Liu Di, and dissident Hu Shigen had all been criminally detained on charges of causing a disturbance.

Previous gatherings like this had merited the attention of the police, but had not resulted in actual charges. So spooked are Chinese authorities that Ding Zilin, the founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group formed to press for accountability for family members' deaths in 1989, has been told she may not return to Beijing in early June. This will be the first year she must observe the anniversary of her son's death from afar.

Activist: Youth naive of Tiananmen debt
Museum keeps Tiananmen crackdown alive

China's central and local governments occasionally make concessions, seemingly designed to placate popular frustrations. The widely loathed arbitrary detention system known as "re-education through labor," in which people could be incarcerated by police for up to three years with no trial, was abolished in late 2013. Some of the most controversial chemical and industrial facilities have been shut down or construction put on hold.

But many of these are half measures, or only temporary fixes.

In response to the political status quo, a law-based, rights-oriented consciousness has emerged in China, and advocates known as the weiquan have started a "rights defense" movement.

These activists, who endure police monitoring, detention, arrest, enforced disappearance and torture, monitor and document human rights cases across the country. Some of their most prominent members were involved in the 1989 protests, and they say that Tiananmen and its legacy informs their current efforts. Four of these lawyers were detained and tortured in Heilongjiang province in March 2014, yet have continued to try to represent politically unpopular cases.

Similarly, the New Citizens Movement is an informal group that has advocated the promotion of civic rights and participation, including the public disclosure of officials' assets to curb corruption, or protecting the rights of children of migrant workers. At least five of its members, including prominent lawyer Xu Zhiyong, have been sentenced this year on charges of "gathering crowds to disturb public order." These activists, too, know the price they are likely to pay for their efforts, yet they carry on, believing that transforming society into a democracy that respects the rule of law requires citizen participation.

The Internet and social media have replaced the hand-lettered placards at Tiananmen, but the messages are similar: accountability for abusive officials, transparency from the state, justice for all.

Independent Chinese organizations try to engage directly with United Nations organizations. But these kinds of actions often provoke extraordinary wrath of the government. One activist, Cao Shunli, was imprisoned in 2013 for her efforts to participate in a review of China's record at the United Nations Human Rights Council. She died in detention in February 2014 after being denied adequate medical treatment.

A truly confident leadership in Beijing would recognize these demands for what they are: efforts to improve life for ordinary people across the country. And while such groups are prevented from gathering at Tiananmen, they increasingly find one another and try to push for change via social media and legal channels. They show no sign of scaling back their demands for human rights. So, will the Chinese government meet them halfway at least?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT