Tiananmen Square Witnesses Push for Human Rights, Democratic Reforms in China

Communist leadership renewing efforts to purge memories of massacre

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. / AP

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Witnesses of the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago said on Friday that it remains more important than ever to press for human rights and democratic reforms in China as the country’s communist leadership renews its efforts to purge memories of the event from the public consciousness.

The five witnesses who spoke at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing included some of the top student leaders of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Chinese troops violently suppressed the demonstrations on June 4, 1989, killing anywhere from several hundred to thousands of citizens and arresting thousands more, though the Chinese government has never released an official tally.

Public or even private discussion of "the June 4th Incident" remains forbidden in China, where university students today are ignorant of iconic figures such as the unidentified "Tank Man" who dared to stand in front of four Chinese tanks in the square.

President Xi Jinping has launched the harshest crackdown yet on discussion of the protests ahead of their 25th anniversary next week. Charismatic rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and other prominent scholars were arrested earlier this month for merely talking about the events in a private home. Dozens of other activists have been jailed, interrogated, or placed under house arrest.

Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, said it is important for the United States to commemorate the events of 1989 while Chinese citizens are prohibited from discussing or learning about them. Smith’s resolution calling on the Chinese government to provide a full accounting of the repression and uphold human rights passed the House on Wednesday.

"The government of China continues to go to astounding lengths to erase the memory of the Tiananmen demonstrations and their violent suppression," he said. "The Internet is censored, citizens holding private discussions or public commemorations are harassed and detained, and we still have no account of those who died, those arrested, those disappeared, or those executed."

"We will always remember—always remember—Tiananmen as long as the Chinese people cannot discuss its significance openly without harassment or arrest," he added.

Xiong Yan was chairman of the Beijing University Students Independent Council in 1989 when he heard on the radio that Chinese troops had entered the square and began firing on the demonstrators. Yan and a friend broke through walls of people shouting "Don’t go!" and "They will kill you!" to witness the events firsthand.

"As we approached, we saw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had tanks, vehicles, and troops moving into Tiananmen Square," he said in his testimony. "Soldiers with helmets and AK47s were randomly shooting at protestors as they chanted slogans and tried to hold their ground. My friend and I crept forward, the sound of bullets, shooting, crying, and tanks blended together."

"As we continued to move forward, we saw horrific scenes of students who were both wounded and dying," he continued. "Few knew first aid, and I remember having feelings of helplessness as people cried out for medical assistance."

Yan was placed on a "most wanted student leaders" list after the protests were dispersed and was imprisoned for nearly two years. He converted to Christianity with the help of an underground church member in China after his release, eventually coming to the United States in 1992. He is now a chaplain in the U.S. Army.

The witnesses said that despite China’s enormous economic gains in the past 25 years, repression is still severe.

Local officials aiming to meet the Communist Party’s population quotas still force women to undergo late-term abortions under the government’s one-child policy, despite a formal ban on the practice. Authorities have overseen more than 336 million forced abortions since the institution of the policy in the early 1980s, according to the pro-life and women’s advocacy group All Girls Allowed.

The preference for boys in China, along with the one-child policy, has created a gender imbalance. China now ranks among the worst nations for combating human trafficking as girls and women from rural areas are sent to urban cities to be brides or sex slaves.

Chinese authorities also continue to imprison leaders of the underground Christian movement that meets in house churches.

Chai Ling, founder and president of All Girls Allowed, noted that there are currently about 100 million Christians in China despite the continued persecution.

"The past 25 years—after the Tiananmen Massacre—China has developed into an economic dictatorship, with no political reform," she said. "However, despite the brutal oppression, forced abortions, and religious persecution, China is going through a powerful spiritual revival. The human heart can’t be satisfied by materialism alone."

The Tiananmen leaders all urged lawmakers to pass legislation such as U.S. visa bans for Chinese officials accused of ordering the crackdown in 1989.

Smith said the U.S. government has long been lax on enforcing similar bans and pressing the Chinese government on human rights more broadly. He noted that President Bill Clinton arranged a 1996 meeting with the Chinese defense minister in Washington, the same general who was the operational commander of soldiers in 1989.

"He should have been sent to the Hague for crimes against humanity and was treated and carried away on a pillow," he said.

Yan said he hopes to one day return to a free China.

"It is my prayer that the lives taken at Tiananmen Square will continue to live on in our memory, and inspire us to continue working toward a better world, free from tyranny and persecution, that upholds the rights and freedoms for all peoples."

Daniel Wiser   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Daniel Wiser is an assistant editor of National Affairs. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013, where he studied Journalism and Political Science and was the State & National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. He hails from Waxhaw, N.C., and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice.

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