China Tensions Loom at Commemoration of Tiananmen Massacre

Speakers at the rally included activists, witnesses to the massacre, and several members of Congress

June 5, 2019

The nonprofit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation held a rally on Capitol Hill Tuesday to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The massacre took place on June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government ordered the military to crush student-led mass demonstrations in Beijing. The military advanced on Tiananmen Square with soldiers and tanks. The estimated death toll of civilian demonstrators in the ensuing massacre ranges from hundreds to thousands.

With the flags of the Capitol Building flying at half-mast in the background, speakers took to a stage to rail against the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of its subjects. They spoke not only in regard to the events at Tiananmen, but also about a host of human rights breaches taking place across China. Among the speakers at the rally were activists, witnesses to the massacre, and several members of Congress.

Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, gave the opening comments at the rally.

"We gather here to remember the sacrifices of those brave Chinese students and workers from 1989, and others around the world since then who have worked to keep their memory alive," Smith said.

The VOC Memorial Foundation presented its Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom to the Tiananmen Mothers, whose children were killed in the massacre and who advocate for their government to acknowledge culpability. Mi Ling Tsui, communications director at the NGO Human Rights in China, accepted the medal on their behalf.

The rally was well-attended by members of the House of Representatives. VOC House Caucus co-chair Chris Smith (R., N.J.) spoke first, detailing the ongoing human rights violations of the current Chinese government.

Rep. Andy Levin (D., Mich.) talked about having personally witnessed China’s crackdown on demonstrations when he lived in Chengdu as a student in 1989.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, revealed to the crowd that he, along with Rep. Smith, had introduced a resolution to recognize the victims of China’s suppression of demonstrations in 1989. The resolution passed the House unanimously later that afternoon.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) was given the honor of unveiling a statue of the "Tank Man," inspired by the famous photograph of a Chinese civilian blocking a convoy of tanks.

While the rally was primarily in recognition of the victims of Tiananmen Square, the event drew in advocates for a variety of groups claiming persecution from the Chinese state. The rally attracted relatively few tourists and unaffiliated attendants, but the crowd and the pool of speakers swelled with representatives of the Tibetan population, the Uyghurs, Christian groups in China, and the Taiwanese.

Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur rights advocate, told the crowd that days after she spoke out against the mass detainment of Uyghur Muslims in China, her sister vanished, presumably kidnapped by the Chinese government in retaliation.

The focus of the rally was on violations of human rights in China, but fraught issues like trade and intellectual property were not far from the forefront of discussion. Some speakers did not hesitate to call out China’s transgressions against the United States along with their domestic offenses.

When asked, U.S. representatives at the rally had their own ideas for how to pressure China to change its human rights policies, but all agreed on one point: that negotiations over issues like trade should not come at the cost of efforts to advocate on behalf of the oppressed.

Rep. Smith favored the Magnitsky Act as a tool to target and sanction people in China responsible for "torturing, committing terrible crimes against humanity" and religious and democratic persecution. "No visas, no ability to do business here in the United States. That would get their attention," he told the Washington Free Beacon.

On trade disputes, "that issue, to me, is secondary to the issue of human rights," Rep. Smith said. "Intellectual property rights, all the copyright infringement that they are notorious for, becomes less likely if they have a rule of law culture and country."