Thirty years ago, on June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese government unleashed massive military force against civilians in Beijing, both participants and observers of an exuberant and peaceful large-scale protest centred in Tiananmen Square which had also spread to other cities. Initiated by students, the protest to call for democratic reform and an end to government corruption had been joined by teachers, intellectuals, journalists, workers, and other civilians over its 50-day course.
In one bloody night and on the days that followed, martial law troops, obeying orders from higher authorities, fired with submachine guns and pistols, crushed with tanks, and stabbed with bayonets—and brutally killed an untold number of unarmed civilians. In the June Fourth crackdown, or Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese government’s use of the people’s army—the People’s Liberation Army—to kill its own people, in peacetime, shattered hundreds or thousands—perhaps even ten thousand or more—of Chinese families, and shocked not just the entire country but also the whole world.
Yet for 30 years, the Chinese government has not taken responsibility for its crimes against its people. Instead, it has engaged in a sustained campaign to rub June Fourth out of Chinese history, in efforts to force those who saw and suffered it to forget, and the younger people to never learn about it. The government’s attempt to erase June Fourth from history has gone hand-in-hand with its adoption of the June Fourth crackdown as a model for dealing with perceived threats to the power of the ruling Communist Party of China: absolute intolerance of critical diverse views and complete disregard for human dignity and basic rights. In that sense, the lawless violence of June Fourth—and the government impunity—exists very much in the present, and has been intensified under Xi Jinping.
This sense of impunity has been in full display, over and over, for all the world to see: the imprisonment and tragic death-in-custody of Liu Xiaobo, the reform advocate and Nobel Peace laureate; the destruction of an entire rank of rights defense lawyers and activists by imprisonment and physical and psychological torture; the outright kidnapping of foreign nationals, even on foreign soil; the silencing of intellectuals; the continued suppression of the culture and religion of the Tibetan people; and the internment of more than one million ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang in a campaign to erase their culture and religion.
“The international community’s self-interested acceptance of the Chinese leaders’ post-June Fourth ‘bargain’—economic reform, but no political reforms—and failure to hold the Chinese leadership accountable for the murder of its own people, have also sadly contributed to the ongoing trampling on rights in China today, ” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China.
“In exchange for trade benefits and entry into China’s vast labour and consumer markets, governments and foreign companies conveniently believed that China’s increased integration into the international community would help it democratize and play by international rules. Instead, in amassing enormous economic and political clout, China is changing those rules and aggressively promoting its own models of human rights, development, and democracy that are at odds with universal values,” said Hom.
International engagement with China, in particular marginalizing human rights for the sake of trade interests, has emboldened a party-state increasingly brazen about its subjugation of the rule of law under the rule by the CCP, its aim of technologically-enhanced comprehensive control over the speech and conduct of every citizen, and its ongoing violations of internationally enshrined fundamental rights.
Beyond its borders, the Chinese government is also stepping up efforts not only to rewrite international human rights principles and norms—born of the lessons the world learned from the horrors of the Second World War—but also to militarize, flout trade decisions made by international authorities that it does not like, and appropriate technology in the service of surveillance and control over cyberspace.
“The Chinese party-state has learned the lesson of 1989: that it can get away with murder. So now it is accelerating efforts to legalize repression and upgrade its surveillance and social control capabilities to equip a powerful digital authoritarianism,” said Hom.
Against this formidable background, one group in China has fought against state-enforced amnesia surrounding June Fourth and has shone a steady light of evidence against ongoing government impunity, defying harassment, surveillance, and threats of retaliation: the Tiananmen Mothers. For nearly three decades, these family members of June Fourth victims along with survivors have collectively identified and documented 202 individuals killed in the June Fourth crackdown and accumulated evidence of the crimes committed against them. They have accomplished this by force of their moral outrage, mutual support, and tenacity in their pursuit of justice for their loved ones. Comprising 127 living members and 55 deceased members, the Tiananmen Mothers have never stopped pressing the Chinese authorities to respond to their three basic demands regarding June Fourth: truth, accountability, and compensation. In the steadfastness of their quest and the unwavering insistence of, the Tiananmen Mothers are a beacon and the conscience of Chinese civil society.
It is their work that has made possible Human Rights in China’s “Unforgotten” project: a series of profiles of June Fourth victims that draw on the documentation the group has collected and compiled.
The profiles, consisting of text, photos, and videos, tell the stories of the individuals, about not only how they died, but also, wherever possible, how they lived, and how their families have been affected by their deaths.
“The dead cannot come alive again, but HRIC’s ‘Unforgotten’ project seeks to honour each life. We hope the profiles will remind the world that they were living human beings—many of them passionate and patriotic students yearning for a free and just society—whose lives were brutally crushed by a government which would go on to deny their deaths,” said Hom.
With “Unforgotten,” HRIC supports the Tiananmen Mothers’ demand for truth, accountability, and compensation for the June Fourth crackdown, and urges the international community to join in their call. The 30th anniversary of June Fourth is not only an occasion for remembrance. It is a time for truth and justice.
This article originally appeared on Human Rights in China.