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Remembering Tiananmen Square


Monday, Jun. 07, 2004

It is now fifteen years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, but the Chinese government has yet to acknowledge responsibility for the killing of hundreds of civilians on June 3-4, 1989. Indeed, the authorities have not only stubbornly refused to reassess what they describe as a "counter-revolutionary rebellion," they have persisted in efforts to erase the public memory of the events.

Over the past week, as the anniversary of the massacre neared, Chinese security forces began harassing dissidents, writers, academics, and long-time pro-democracy activists, warning them not to discuss it. Police even ordered some government critics to leave Beijing. At least one dissident was beaten when he tried to leave his home.

On the anniversary itself, while tens of thousands gathered in Hong Kong to commemorate the victims of the crackdown, no manifest signs of remembrance were allowed in Beijing. Anyone who tried to mark the anniversary publicly was stopped by the police. Over the course of the day at least sixteen people were arrested at Tiananmen Square, according to the New York Times.

Interviews with Tiananmen's "Most Wanted"

Our knowledge of what happened in and around Tiananmen Square fifteen years ago remains incomplete. The Chinese government has made no public accounting of precisely how many people died, or of who the victims were. But despite official efforts to put the memory of the massacre to rest, it has not been forgotten either in China or abroad.

Beginning in mid-June 1989, the Chinese government issued "wanted lists" of students and others sought for prosecution because of their role in the protests that led up to the killings. Human Rights Watch recently contacted a sampling of people named on these lists. These people, some of whom ended up spending years in prison for "conspiracy," "incitement," and similar offenses, were asked about their involvement in the pro-democracy movement, the aftermath of the crackdown, their subsequent lives, and their assessment of what June 4, 1989 means for China's future.

Here are some of their responses:

Feng Congde was a third-year graduate student at Beijing University at the time of the Tiananmen protests, which he joined in April 1989. He became president of the Student Union of Beijing Universities, and was one of three deputy commanders of student headquarters. After the massacre, he and his wife spent ten months in hiding in China before escaping into exile.

Feng is positive about Tiananmen's long-term impact. "Tiananmen was the beginning of the end of the communist camp," he told Human Rights Watch in May 2004. "It was a wake-up call to Chinese inside and outside China."

In his view, democratic values have taken root in China. "Although people don't speak out, they are building a bigger democratic base. Democracy and human rights have become not just a new concept, but a real and common value."

Wang Dan, another student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, was sentenced to four years' imprisonment for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement." He was released in 1993, but rearrested two years later, again for his political activities. In 1998, after having been sentenced to an eleven-year term for "plotting to subvert the government," he agreed to leave China for exile in the United States.

In a recent interview with Human Rights Watch, he asserted that "the future for democracy in China is dependent not just on political institutions but on the growth of a vibrant civil society."

Liu Gang, a graduate student in physics, was active in the pro-democracy movement well before Tiananmen Square. By the late 1980s, he was involved in creating "democracy salons" on university campuses where students could discuss the need for free expression, political pluralism, and human rights.

After the Tiananmen killings, Liu was sentenced to six years of imprisonment for "conspiracy to subvert the government." After serving out this sentence, he escaped to the United States in 1996.

Now a mathematics researcher, Liu told Human Rights Watch: "We almost changed China. From the time of Tiananmen, people had more confidence that the system could be changed. Before then, they thought the Party was too stable, too powerful. They didn't even want to try to change it. We didn't fail--failure is the mother of success. There'll be more chances--and we have more experience."

Zhou Fengsou, a physics major at the time of the massacre, was never prosecuted for his role at Tiananmen Square. But after years of monitoring and police harassment, he finally left China for the United States.

He told Human Rights Watch that the protests at Tiananmen Square were "the biggest event" for his generation. "I feel lucky to have been a part. It was the one time I experienced the beautiful character of the Chinese people longing for a democratic China where we could freely speak our minds. We believed we could get there. Later I experienced the worst of human nature. People died."

The Right Way to Address the Memory of Tiananmen

The horror of the killings at Tiananmen Square resonates both inside and outside of China. While memories of these events cannot be excised, they can be properly addressed.

Not only should the Chinese authorities publicly acknowledge responsibility for the killings, they should punish the perpetrators, compensate the families of the victims, and allow those who fled the country afterwards to return home.

Joanne Mariner is a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in New York. Her column is based on material from a Human Rights Watch web page called "Tiananmen, Fifteen Years On," which was launched to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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