32 Years Later, Neither Activists Nor Officials Have Forgotten June 4th

As the 32nd anniversary of the violent military crackdown on protesters in Beijing and elsewhere throughout China approached, the government continued to clamp down hard on any potential commemorations or public acknowledgement of the events of 1989. As has become standard practice, political activists were forced to leave Beijing or to stay at home during the days surrounding June 4. Radio Free Asia interviewed several activists, including members of the Tiananmen Mothers, a loose-knit group of family members of those killed:

“They’ve been in contact a few times already, and I have to leave town for June 4,” Zha, who once tried to stand as an independent candidate against the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in local People’s Congress elections, told RFA.

[…] The Tiananmen Mothers victims’ group of more than 100 family members issued its annual statement on Monday, calling on the CCP to move ahead with compensation, a historical reassessment of the 1989 student movement and subsequent massacre of unarmed civilians by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and for those responsible to be brought to justice.

“June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army dispatched tanks and soldiers with live ammunition to shoot and crush to death unarmed students and residents of Beijing,” the group said.

“Since that tragedy took place, 32 years have gone by, and still our citizens are prevented from commemorating those who died in public,” it said. “Younger people don’t even know about the massacre in that year, or they don’t believe it happened.” [Source]

Joe McDonald and Dake Kang of AP report on one Tiananmen activist who later spent 17 years in prison before sneaking out of China to escape constant surveillance and political pressure:

“Once you are on the Chinese government’s blacklist, you will be tracked for life,” Fan told The Associated Press ahead of Friday’s anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military attack on protesters. He spoke in another Asian country and asked that it not be identified while its government considers his request for asylum.

Party leaders have imprisoned or driven activists into exile and largely succeeded in ensuring young people know little about June 4. Still, after more than three decades and three changes of leadership, they are relentless in trying to prevent any mention of the attack that killed hundreds and possibly thousands of people.

Relatives of those who died are watched and, ahead of the anniversary, some are detained or forced to stay temporarily away from home to prevent them from doing anything that might draw attention. Public memorials on the mainland always have been prohibited. Vigils used to be held openly in Hong Kong and Macao, Chinese territories with fewer political controls, but authorities banned events this year.

“They have only deepened repression,” said Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch in a report this month. [Source]

Human Rights Watch gathered additional reports of official efforts to preempt commemorative activities, and called on the Chinese government to “acknowledge and take responsibility for the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in June 1989.”

Meanwhile, several activists who were imprisoned immediately following the June 4 crackdown recall support and sympathy they received from prison guards and other low-level officials they encountered—support which could not be publicly expressed in China today. From Joyce Cheng of Australia’s ABC News:

Sympathy for the political cause of the student activists within government ranks was not uncommon after 1989, according to Zhou Fengsuo, a prominent Tiananmen student leader who spent a year in Qincheng Prison with Mr Chen.

At first, he was arrested and held in Xi’an, where he said a local policeman visited him in prison because he wanted to hear his views on national affairs.

[…] He said after he was released, he would travel to other cities for business and found some local government officials showed sympathy for activists like him.

“In those couple of years after the crackdown, it was common for those in the system to be sympathetic to the students,” he said.

But Mr Zhou said this sentiment within the system gradually disappeared after he left China in 1995. [Source]

In the past decade, authorities have sharpened their censorship tools in the run-up to the anniversary, blocking a wide swathe of related keywords and removing emojis and other content that could be perceived as showing support for the protests. This year was no different.

An editorial in The Guardian honors the Tiananmen Mothers, who “persist in their brave and lonely campaign.”

The Communist party’s erasure of 1989’s killings has been so comprehensive and effective that many young people on the mainland are unaware they happened, and others have come to believe that perhaps the crackdown was necessary. The silence grows. The right to remember what happened in 1989 is also the right to know the truth more broadly: “Defending the memory of Tiananmen is the first line of defence,” one Hong Kong lawyer said this week.

What we should recall, however, is not only the slaughter 32 years ago, but the huge support for the protests which preceded it. There were marches in more than 300 cities; officials including police and judges participated in demonstrations calling for freedom and reform. Many of the hundreds, possibly thousands, who died in Beijing and elsewhere were not students, but ordinary residents attempting to protect them. To remember 1989 is to remember that there is an alternative, however impossible it might seem now: that Hong Kong could have kept its freedoms; that octogenarians could be allowed to mourn their slain children without harassment; that Uyghurs could live in dignity in Xinjiang; that human rights could be protected in China and its people trusted with the truth and the freedom to debate them. [Source]

Human Rights in China has posted a series of profiles of victims and survivors of June 4th:

Read more memories of and reflections on the 1989 protest movement and June 4th, including a reading list, from CDT’s archives. See also CDT series posting original news reporting from each day throughout the spring of 1989.


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