Tiananmen’s legacy: after 26 years, participants still in prison for human rights
Beijing (AsiaNews) – Twenty-six years ago, during the night between 3 and 4 June 1989, the People’s “Liberation” Army terminated a movement of about a million students and workers who occupied Tiananmen Square for over a month, demanding greater democracy and less corruption among the members of the Chinese Communist Party.
According to the most credible estimates, from 200 to 2,000 people were gunned down or crushed by army tanks. Tens of thousands of people were arrested in the following days and convicted as "counter-revolutionaries" because they had attacked the party’s hegemony.
Since then, the authorities have continuously defined the crackdown as "a lesser evil", necessary to ensure China's subsequent economic development. However, the wounds opened at the time have not healed. First, the demands made by the young protesters in Tiananmen Square are still alive. Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption is evidence of that. Second, year after year, the victims’ relatives continue to demand a review of the decision that led to the bloody intervention.
In particular, the Tiananmen Mothers want the names of those behind the decision to crack down and a trial to remove the counterrevolutionary label pinned on the movement. For the Mothers, the protest movement was instead patriotic, and the young people who died sacrificed themselves for the good of the country. However, China’s government and ruling party will have none of that. In fact, every time the anniversary comes around, victims’ relatives are rounded up, shipped outside of Beijing and prevented from communicating.
Still, this year, the Tiananmen Mothers have issued again a message, calling for a review of what happened and an exemplary condemnation of the perpetrators of "historical crimes". This year they cited Prime Minister Li Keqiang who called on Japan to take on the “historical responsibility" for what happened during its occupation of China.
“By the same logic,” the group said, “shouldn’t today’s Chinese leaders bear responsibility for the series of crimes, manmade famine and slaughter, perpetrated in their own country by China’s leaders at the time: Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping?”
For this reason, the Mothers want China to commemorate the deaths of people during the 1958-1961 famine, the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen crackdown, noting that leaders “cannot impose a forced amnesia”.
That Tiananmen is still an open wound for China is seen in the fact that many of those who took part in the protest so many years ago became involved in civil society groups, only to find themselves in prison, pointlessly silenced so that their experience be in vain.
China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has prepared report with a list with the names of scores of people who took part in the Tiananmen movement 26 years ago. Many are still in imprisoned for their commitment to human rights and democracy. Many others, after what they went through in Tiananmen, have continued the non-violent struggle they began in 1989, with more becoming activists in various areas of civil society. Here is the CHRD’s report and list.
On the 26th anniversary of the Chinese government’s bloody suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, scores of individuals who took part in the movement are detained or in prison today for their continuing efforts to push for human rights protections and democratic reforms. Several activists and lawyers seized last year for commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre are still detained and have been subjected to torture or prolonged pre-trial detention. Since last week, more activists, including 1989 participants, have been detained, put under house arrest, or visited by police who issued warnings against any activities marking the 26th anniversary of Tiananmen. The suppression of all these individuals is an indication of the government’s fear of a mass pro-democracy movement emerging inside China.
Among those 1989 participants now behind bars are some of the most prominent and influential members of China’s civil society, who have actively promoted human rights, democracy, and rule-of-law reforms since 1989. They played leadership roles or joined the protests in 1989 as young students, professors, journalists, writers, or factory workers. Some of them served previous prison terms for their role in the movement, and all of them resumed their pro-democracy and rights advocacy activities after being released. They persisted in their pursuits despite police monitoring, harassment, and restrictions on their movements and communications.
As these cases (see below) and other cases documented by CHRD reflect, the Chinese government has shown a tendency to severely persecute those involved in the 1989 movement. Relative to measures taken against other activists, punishments for June Fourth participants have tended to be harsher; many leading activists from the 1989 era have served lengthy or multiple prison sentences.
The cases listed below, far from being exhaustive, highlight former 1989 participants who are currently imprisoned or detained for their post-1989 activities promoting human rights and democracy. (For more case details, click on the links to go to CHRD’s website.)
Former 1989 participants in prison (in chronological order of their imprisonment):
- Historian and writer Yang Tongyan has been serving a 12-year sentence since 2006 for his political activism. He participated in the 1989 pro-democracy movement and was jailed from 1990 to 2000 on “counterrevolutionary” charges for opposing the military crackdown;
- China Democracy Party (CDP) member Xie Changfa was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 2009 for his work with the party. He spent two years in a Re-education through Labor camp for giving speeches at secondary schools in Hunan in support of the 1989 movement;
- Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has been serving an 11-year sentence since 2009 for his leading role in the “Charter 08” campaign. A university lecturer in 1989, he was jailed for 18 months for his role in the movement;
- Student leader Zhou Yongjun has been serving a nine-year sentence since 2010. He was held in prison until 1993 for his role in the 1989 movement;
- China Democracy Party member Liu Xianbin was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 2011 for his human rights advocacy. He served 30 months in prison for participating in the 1989 movement and another 10 years (1999-2009) for his activism;
- Sichuan activist Chen Wei has been serving a nine-year sentence since 2011 for his human rights activism. A student in 1989, he was imprisoned after the demonstrations and released in 1991;
- Pro-democracy activist Chen Xi was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in 2011 for leading local efforts to promote human rights in Guizhou Province. He was a political cadre at a university and served a three-year sentence for participating in the 1989 movement;
- Democracy activist and writer Zhu Yufu was sentenced in 2012 to seven years in prison for his persistent advocacy for democracy and human rights. He took part in the 1989 movement while working in Hangzhou;
- Sichuan dissident and poet Li Bifeng was sentenced to 10 years in 2012 for his activism. He served five years in prison on charges of “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” for his role in the protests;
- Pro-democracy activist Zhang Lin was sentenced to 42 months in prison in 2014 for his rights activism. He spent two years in prison for participating in the 1989 pro-democracy movement;
- Activist Zhao Changqing was sentenced 30-months in prison in 2014 for his active role in the “New Citizens’ Movement.” Zhao spent four months in prison for his role as a student leader in the protests in Tiananmen Square. He was jailed two more times for his pro-democracy activities (in 1997 and 2002) on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” for three and five years, respectively; and
- Veteran journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to seven years in prison in April 2015. She is one of several individuals who have faced criminal punishments after the crackdown surrounding the 25th anniversary of June 4th (see more below). Gao joined the 1989 protests and criticized the government suppression through her writings, and as a result was detained twice and served six years in prison. She was barred from publishing in China after her past releases.
Former 1989 participants in detention:
- Guangzhou activist Guo Feixiong (aka Yang Maodong) was put on trial in November 2014 on a charge of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place,” but no verdict has been announced. He has been in custody since August 2013 for organizing protests for press freedom in front of the Southern Weekly Guo took part in the 1989 movement as a student in Shanghai and previously served jail time for his political activism;
- Buddhist monk Sheng Guan (aka Xu Zhiqiang) was put on trial on a charge of “inciting subversion of state power” in April 2015. He was detained in May 2014 for giving a lecture in which he talked about rights and democracy issues. Xu worked at a state-owned enterprise in 1989 and helped found the Xi’an Workers Autonomous Federation, and was jailed for a year for his participation in the movement;
- Guangzhou-based activist Tang Jingling is scheduled to be tried on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” on June 19. He was detained in May 2014 for his role in the Non-violent Citizens’ Disobedience Movement. He had been stripped of his license to practice law for taking on “sensitive” cases. Tang participated in the 1989 movement as a student;
- Henan authorities charged activist Yu Shiwen in April 2015 with “creating a disturbance” for holding a memorial for June Fourth victims in early 2014. He and his now-wife, Chen Wei, were imprisoned for their roles as student leaders in 1989;
- Beijing-based human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was indicted in May 2015 for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “creating a disturbance,” charges stemming from his posts on social media. A law student in 1989, Pu was a leader in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, and took part in the hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. The university in Beijing disciplined him in 1989, and he has since provided support to the Tiananmen Mothers;
- Hangzhou police arrested China Democracy Party members Chen Shuqing and Lü Gengsong on charges of “subversion of state power” in September 2014 for their rights defense work, including activities related to the banned CDP. In 1989, Chen was a student at Hangzhou University and participated in the movement, and Lü was a teacher in Hangzhou who was dismissed in 1993 for supporting the democracy movement. Both have often been detained or imprisoned since 1989;
- In April, Sichuan police arrested activist Chen Yunfei on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and “creating a disturbance” for organizing a memorial to June Fourth victims this spring. Chen participated in the 1989 movement as a student at the China Agricultural University in Beijing; and
- Unidentified men seized Liu Shaoming from his home in Guangzhou on May 29, and he has not been heard from since. Liu went from Jiangsu Province to Beijing to take part in the 1989 demonstrations and was jailed for a year for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.” In recent years, he has actively promoted workers’ rights in China’s southern industrial regions and, as a result, has been frequently harassed by police.
Of the individuals detained during the crackdown around the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre a year ago, 13 remain in custody. Five have been put on trial, including Gao Yu, Sheng Guan, Huang Fangmei, and housing rights activists Jia Lingmin and Liu Diwei. Five others have been indicted, including Yu Shiwen, Pu Zhiqiang, and Tang Jingling, and his associates Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting. A further two have been formally arrested—freelance journalist Jiang Lijun and New Citizens’ Movement activist Zhang Kun. Jiang is in a Liaoning detention center, and authorities reportedly moved Zhang to a psychiatric hospital in Jiangsu Province, where his lawyers were blocked from visiting him in March 2015.
This year, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) is reviewing China’s compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. China ratified the Convention in 1988, one year before the Tiananmen Massacre.
CAT has since repeatedly raised the issue of accountability over the government’s excessive use of force, torture, and other ill-treatment of Chinese citizens in 1989. Under the Convention, it is imperative that the Chinese government end its policy of denial and deception regarding the violent suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations. The government has an obligation under Articles 12, 13, and 14 of the Convention to promptly and impartially investigate allegations of torture, and provide state compensation to victims of torture.
On this 26th Tiananmen anniversary, CHRD reiterates its calls on the Chinese government
- to release anyone who remains in prison for participating in the 1989 protests, including Miao Deshun, the only confirmed individual still in prison for offenses that occurred around June Fourth (his current situation remains unclear and unconfirmed by the government);
- release individuals who have been detained for organizing activities or expressing views to memorialize June Fourth around its 25th anniversary in 2014 and in the days leading up to this year’s anniversary;
- and free all 1989 participants detained or imprisoned for their ongoing activism, as well as all other prisoners of conscience in China.
Chinese authorities must end the ongoing suppression of families, survivors, and supporters who demand accountability for the human rights abuses committed in 1989. In addition, the government must end its targeted persecution of members of civil society who participated in the 1989 movement.