Original participants in China’s pro-democracy movement in 1989 are back in prison on the 26th anniversary of the government’s brutal suppression of those protests, a stark reminder that the ruling Communist Party continues to repress dissidents, activists say.
On June 4, 1989, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mobilized against the peaceful protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other cities across the country. While the Chinese government has never released information about the crackdown, it is believed that hundreds or thousands of civilians were killed.
Many of the pro-democracy protesters who escaped the PLA’s troops and tanks later returned to activism and have been arrested repeatedly. According to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), at least 12 are currently serving prison sentences, and nine are in police custody. The imprisoned include some of China’s most prominent human rights activists, such as Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo.
"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," CHRD said in a statement.
Thirteen individuals who were seized by police last year for commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests are still in detention, CHRD said. Some have reportedly been tortured, and one activist, Zhang Kun, was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the eastern Jiangsu Province. Activists say Chinese authorities have increasingly used involuntary psychiatric detention as a punishment for political dissidents.
More dissidents were detained or harassed by police ahead of the 26th anniversary this week.
CHRD said there is one protester from 1989 who has remained in prison since the Tiananmen demonstrations. Miao Deshun was detained June 4 for allegedly lobbing a basket at a burning tank and sentenced to death, though that sentence was later commuted. He was reportedly beaten by security guards and transferred to the Yanqing Prison for psychiatric treatment, but not much is known about his current condition.
"Chinese authorities must end the ongoing suppression of families, survivors, and supporters who demand accountability for the human rights abuses committed in 1989," CHRD said. "In addition, the government must end its targeted persecution of members of civil society who participated in the 1989 movement."
Hong Kong, which is formally governed by China but enjoys more civil liberties than the mainland, holds an annual vigil to remember the victims of Tiananmen. About 135,000 people attended this year’s event after tens of thousands organized their own pro-democracy protests last year in the streets of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong legislators will vote June 17 on a Beijing-backed measure that would grant control of the city’s leadership elections to a 1,200-member committee with strong ties to the mainland. The controversial election proposal sparked the protests last year and is likely to provoke more demonstrations this month. Activists say Beijing has yet to fulfill its promise to Hong Kong that it would be allowed to elect its own leaders.
The Chinese government censors all discussions of the Tiananmen crackdown in public or online. Author and lecturer Rowena He wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that some Chinese students have tried to raise awareness about the movement:
After twenty-six years of state-imposed amnesia, this year a group of Chinese students studying abroad wrote an open letter to their peers in China: "We feel the aftershocks of this tragedy . . . The more we know, the more we feel we have a grave responsibility on our shoulders. We are writing you this open letter, fellow college students inside China, to share the truth with you and to expose crimes that have been perpetrated up to this day in connection with the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989."
The state-owned newspaper Global Times dismissed the letter, claiming that "Chinese society has reached a consensus on not debating the 1989 incident . . . When China is moving forward, some are trying to drag up history in an attempt to tear apart society. It’s a meaningless attempt." Ironically, even this official piece was quickly removed from the paper’s website.