Tiananmen 25: More than a Symbolic Legacy

It would be fitting that the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre be marked by a renewed international effort to provide greater support to Chinese human rights defenders.

China-Tiananmen-Square

Credit: HRW

Twenty five years ago today, the leadership of the CCP demonstrated the extent to which it would go in order to face down any challenges to its power or legitimacy.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) currently working in China are frequently seen as challenging the Party and as such must be prepared to risk everything, including death, to continue their work. Although the Party’s methods may have changed in the past quarter of a century, its intention to crush dissent at any cost has not.

In June 1989, at least hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were killed in the approach roads to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, bringing an end to seven weeks of protests which had drawn up to a million people onto the streets. What started off as a student protest in the capital calling for political reform quickly morphed into a mass movement supported by broad cross-sections of society which spread to dozens of other cities throughout the country.

The legacy of these protests and the massacre that followed is still keenly felt by HRDs in today’s China. The events of 1989 remain a key touchstone to many Chinese HRDs and as the CCP works to erase the memory of what happened that June, HRDs are equally determined to keep that memory alive, and honor those who died. They do this not only through yearly commemorations of the dead, but also through their day-to-day work defending the rights for which the 1989 protesters struggled. These HRDs highlight injustice, campaign against discrimination, defend in court those who have been arrested for expressing themselves freely and shine a spotlight on the myriad of abuses, including corruption, carried out by the CCP.

So threatened does the Party feel by the memory of its actions 25 years ago that it criminalizes the very act of remembering. In early May, five HRDs were arrested following a low-key memorial at a private residence in Beijing. They are being held on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The only “quarrel” these HRDs “picked” was with the CCP’s whitewashed version of history, and the Party’s hysterical overreaction to such a commemoration is as clear an admission of guilt as any signed confession.

The Tiananmen Mothers, of course, are well used to such a reaction by the CCP. This group of aging parents whose children were killed in June 1989 has been fighting the Party’s monopoly on the telling of the past by collecting and writing back into history the names of the dead for the last 25 years. One of the founders of the group is Ding Zilin whose 17 year old son was shot dead by the People’s Liberation Army as it advanced on Tiananmen Square. As each year she continues her struggle for justice, so too each year does the government attempt to silence her.

She, like many others in the group, faces harassment, surveillance, detention and periods of involuntary travel, where she is forced out of the capital for the period surrounding the anniversary. This year, Ding Zilin has been out of contact since March. The moral authority of this 77 year old mother is simply too dangerous for the Party to allow her to be free.

A further legacy of the 1989 protests is the CCP’s deeply entrenched fear of any social movement which unites people in different locations and across class lines. This partly explains the crackdown in the past 12 months on HRDs in different cities who had aligned themselves with the New Citizens Movement, a loosely based network of activists campaigning for greater transparency amongst CCP officials and a more equal education system. In calling for greater transparency, these activists were echoing President Xi Jinping’s much touted anti-corruption drive.

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However, in the logic of the CCP, because they did so outside the framework of the Party – and many are long time HRDs – they had to be silenced, for it must be the Party and only the Party who shows leadership in tackling social problems. Otherwise, the “wrong” type of corrupt officials might be exposed. A handful of the New Citizen activists have been imprisoned, others have lingered in detention for over a year, while still others have been subjected to what every HRD in China must face at one stage or another, or continuously; intimidation, harassment, surveillance and interrogation.

On the surface, the China of today is a much changed place to the China of 1989. Three decades of breakneck economic growth has turned the country into a force to be reckoned with on the global stage and this new confidence is evident in its increasingly aggressive stance towards territorial claims in the South China Sea. Yet beneath the confident exterior lies the reality that the CCP remains a fragile entity, haunted by the possibility that the values of equality, justice and dignity espoused by HRDs in China might threaten its legitimacy, which is based almost solely on an economic growth model that all too often tramples on the rights of the most vulnerable. This lack of confidence is exemplified by the Party’s treatment of Liu Xia, wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner and participant in the 1989 protests, Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xia has been subjected to house arrest for over three years. She has not been accused, charged or found guilty of any crime. The ‘mistake’ which now forces her to live in isolation was made in 1996 when she married Liu Xiaobo.

While various countries trip over each other in a race to secure lucrative trade deals with China, emphasis on human rights gets pushed further and further down the agenda. The CCP knows that no matter how egregious its abuse of rights – as in the recent death of human rights defender Cao Shunli in custody – international reaction will be muted at best. These are the same rights which workers and students died for twenty five years ago and whose deaths were met at the time with a robust international response.

The weakening of such international support for HRDs working today can only be seen as a betrayal of the values espoused in 1989. It would be fitting that the 25th anniversary of the massacre be marked by a renewed international effort to provide greater support to Chinese HRDs as they bravely continue their work in advancing and protecting internationally recognized rights, despite knowing with full certainty that they will be targeted as a result of this work.

Mary Lawlor is Founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, an Irish international human rights organization working for the security and protection of human rights defenders worldwide. For more on Front Line Defenders work on China, visit www.lighthonestyhrd.org.