This Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the peaceful protests at Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square. That violent crackdown marked the end of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square, protests that sought to bring reform to China.
To mark this anniversary, I was going to write a post on where China is today and its new attempts to squelch any dissent, protest, or rule of law in one of the last areas in China that permits freedom of speech: Hong Kong. But as I sit here in New York City, on a picture-perfect spring afternoon, searching for photos of the tanks rolling into the Tiananmen Square area to accompany the blog post, my twitter feed is full of pictures of U.S. military trucks invading some of America’s largest cities to “put down” peaceful – and some less peaceful – protests. These protests erupted soon after videos emerged of the brutal death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck until Floyd stopped breathing. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, and even after Floyd’s handcuffed body went limp, the officer never stopped his pressure on Floyd’s neck. Three other police officers stood there and watched.
As protests erupt in the United States, our initial response is violence. Tear gas and pepper spray fill the streets of many U.S. cities with the police resorting to heavy-handed tactics. Peaceful protesters are hit with rubber bullets. There is little attempt by the police to de-escalate. Journalists find themselves the targets of police. The government blames “antifa” forces for instigating the protests. These scenes conjure up images of last year’s protests in Hong Kong, where violent police tactics were used against unarmed protesters. And with some Hong Kong protesters’ frustrations growing, they too sought to vandalize stores and destroy property. The Chinese government blames “foreign forces” for riling up the people. The one difference: President Xi Jinping didn’t tweet that the Hong Kong police should shoot the protesters; that would be too reminiscent of 1989. But, in the United States, President Donald Trump did tweet such sentiments. And mere days from the 31st anniversary of the Chinese government unleashing its military to massacre unarmed civilians, Trump has threatened to do the same.
Beijing, June 1989
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Journalists attacked at the Hong Kong protests, 2019
Journalists attacked during US protests, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
I know that substantively comparing the United States and China is inappropriate. The police officer who killed Floyd has been charged with third degree murder and will be prosecuted at a public trial that will be covered by the press. The officer’s fate will be determined by an independent judicial system. These things would never happen in China, and increasing less so in Hong Kong. And there are some police officers and national guard members showing restraint and solidarity with the protesters; those who are not will be held accountable. Again, something that would not happen in China and isn’t happening in Hong Kong. But the images from the United States this week, and the sentiments from the U.S. president, are eerily similar to images of Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong last summer. It’s too much to ignore. And I fear that like the protesters in 1989 who sought a better society for China, the protesters this weekend in the United States will confront a government that prevents them from realizing a better society for us: one that is truly equal and where black lives matter.
Every year, I dedicate this post to those killed on June 4th, 1989. But as I write this, I wonder, how many of the men and women who lost their lives in Beijing 31 years ago used their last breathes to cry out for their mothers, just like George Floyd did last week on the streets of Minneapolis. And while we still must remember June 4th, the lives lost and the dreams crushed, this year, I would like to dedicate this post to George Floyd. And to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardener, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the countless other African Americans killed by the police in the United States (or people who thought they were the police). We need to say their names. We must never forget. For them, we must continue to build a better society with freedom, equality and dignity for all.
Today, China Law & Policy concludes its interview series for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Today, we are joined with Andréa Worden. Andréa is a noted China expert, human rights advocate and she will be teaching a course on human rights in China at John Hopkins University this fall. But back in the spring of 1989, she was an English teacher at Hunan Medical University in Changsha, China. And as a result, experienced firsthand the student protests that were happening in Changsha and then the subsequent crackdown.
Andréa has written about her experience, first, as a chapter in a book containing accounts of some of the pro-democracy protests outside of Beijing and then 15 years later, for China Rights Forum. Today, she’s going to talk to us about some of her experiences there.
Listen to the full audio of the interview here (total time 40 minutes):
CL&P: So Andréa, just to start, what started the protests in Beijing, for the Beijing students it was the death of Hu Yaobang back in, I believe, April of 1989 and that kicked off a lot of the pro-democracy protests there. For your students in Changsha, what were their reactions to Hu’s death, or did something else cause them to start protesting?
AW: Well first, Elizabeth, it is great to be with you again in the run up to the anniversary of June 4, and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me about this incredibly important event. I wanted to mention that, just first off, something that is not particularly well known is the fact that in more than 340 cities in China during the spring of 1989, there were protests. Likely that number is much higher. That figure comes from the compiler of the Tiananmen Papers.
I recently saw a figure online, unfortunately without a cite, it was the Wiki on the Tiananmen protests that mentioned the number 400 [cities with protests in 1989]. But my own feeling is that it’s probably even more than that becau
The distance between Changsha and Beijing.
se some of my students in Changsha were from fairly small towns in Hunan. When they went home during this period of April and May of 1989, they said even in their very small hometowns, villages even, there were protests. So it was truly nationwide and unfortunately, we probably will never know the full scope of the pro-democracy protests in China.
So right, April 15 was the day that Hu Yaobang passed away. We know that was obviously a critical moment in Beijing, and that’s what launched the student protests in Beijing. Also, in Changsha, many people were very sad when they heard the news. Hu Yaobang actually is from Hunan, so there was this sense of “he’s our native son” who was viewed very much by many people as being sort of a hero and somebody that they really had hope for, as somebody who supported intellectuals, who supported the students, and was very much involved in the economic reforms and some political reform under Deng.
My particular school. . .so Hunan Medical University medical students, they have a reputation for not being particularly political. But there were a few universities on the other side of the river that goes right through Changsha that were known to be very active politically both earlier in 1979 and 1980, and there’s also an election movement during that time period at those colleges. Those colleges include Hunan University, South Central Industrial University, and Hunan Teachers College. Then it was also known as Hunan Normal University. Over on that side of the river, the other side of the river, there were mourning activities or events [for Hu Yaobang], but no major protest as far as I know, yet.
CL&P: When your students in Changsha at the Hunan Medical University, when they started seeing the students in Beijing protest at Tiananmen Square, what were their reactions to it? Did they talk to you about it? Did they feel like they could talk to you about it?
AW: A few of my students that I had become quite close to as good friends, they felt very comfortable I think speaking with me about it. They were excited. They were sort of amazed, and there was really this sense of hope that students could come together on such a massive scale and speak out about the things that they also very much felt. Those things ranged from inflation, which was really a huge problem then at that time. My students felt it personally when the prices at the cafeteria went up, like doubled, and some of them said, “My parents can’t afford this.”
AW: So there was that on a very personal, practical level. But then also corruption was everywhere. That became a big theme of the movement both in Beijing and in Changsha. Corruption, inflation and then certainly freedom, democracy. Regardless of what they might have viewed democracy as being or how they might define it, my clear sense was a lot of this was about personal freedoms, more personal freedom, certainly freedom of speech, freedom of expression.
Protests in Changsha the Spring of 1989; taken by Andréa Worden
CL&P: So in Changsha itself, when did the protests really take off? You mentioned that they were two different areas of universities and you were in the area on the other side of the river with Hunan Medical University. When did your students start participating in the protests or most of the university students at Hunan Medical start participating?
AW: So the students on the other side of the river – the more politically-active side of town – they had organized demonstrations, we could say a smaller-ish demonstration or just a gathering, on April 15th. Just really, truly mourning this leader. And of course, in China mourning a leader that has passed invariably ends up commenting on the current leadership, even implicitly. So that was happening.
The other folks, the more active folks organized demonstrations for April 22nd, April 26th and May 4. I should say also I don’t have complete information. So there may well have been more than this. This is what I have noted and I’ve written in my article that you’ve mentioned.
So at this point still my students were definitely, I think, interested in watching. Some I’m sure went out to maybe peek and take a look, but the students, the Hunan Medical University students were not yet actively involved en masse.
CL&P: Did they ever become involved en masse?
AW: Yes, they did. Yes. Let me tell you a little bit about that. It was this sort of. . . they were watching things very, very carefully. They were able to get information from the VOA and the BBC over. . .
CL&P: Yeah, a shortwave radio.
AW: Yeah, exactly. So Voice of America and the BBC from England, they were able to get that over a shortwave radio. And so what would happen – of course not everybody had a shortwave radio – but the people who did would write out on large poster board or pieces of paper, they would write out news from Beijing. They’d plaster these large pieces of paper of all over the city or actually in main areas, certainly at all universities and at big intersections people were watching, were looking around.
Also, there were certainly, there were hints on the evening news. A dialogue with the students in Beijing was coming up. This was also of course televised. [Ed. Note: During the course of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing, the central government held three dialogues with the Tiananmen student leaders – April 29, May 14 and May 18. All three were televised; some live, some on tape-delay]
So there was that and there were also of course at this point too, it’s something called chuanlian [串联], which is the students networking or people networking across cities, across boundaries, across the country to try to mobilize other students as well as workers. This was a term I think that came from the Cultural Revolution. Some of the Changsha student leaders were going up to Beijing and they were bringing back information.
So basically what happened at my school – again, probably one of the last schools to get very involved – was one [dorm] room of male students from my class, they decided to fast, to hunger strike or fast [after] one of the days the students had started their hunger strike in Beijing on May 13, and this really moved people. [Ed. Note: Andréa clarified this timeline in a follow up conversation with CL&P. She recalled this group of her students going on their hunger strike a few days after Beijing students did, on May 17, 1989.]
So they [the small group of Hunan Medical male students] were inspired and moved by the students who were hunger striking in Beijing and they said, “We had to do something. We couldn’t just sit here and go to class and not do anything, right?”
A photo from Andréa taken on May 17, 1989 in Changsha showing some of the hunger strikers in front of the provincial government headquarters
So anyways, on May 17, one group of this one room of these young [male] students put a sign up on their door and they said that they would just fast for one day and they weren’t encouraging anybody else to do anything. This was just something these however many boys, I can’t remember, six, eight, had decided they were going to do as a group. So that also inspired so many people at Hunan Medical University. So when some of the girls in our class found out what the boys were doing, they thought “oh, we can’t [not do anything]. We have to support this too.”
So anyway, it kind of went room by room, or dorm room by dorm room. The girls got involved and the students from other classes heard what was happening. Word travels fast. Basically very soon there was a lot of hubbub and momentum, people were fasting for the day, wanting to show support for the students in Beijing.
I wanted to share this story in part because it shows how important one person – or here seven people – deciding to do one thing, this personal act of protest, how that can just totally truly spark a much larger movement or event or action because it has a sort of amazing ripple effect of just inspiring other people to take action.
So that evening the students, the student union leaders, got onto the loud speaker, and announced on the loud speaker that the Hunan Medical University was going to participate in the city-wide demonstration that was going to be held that night. I don’t think that was just a coincidence. It might have been, but. . . .
CL&P: Right. So at Hunan Medical University, once this started around May 17th, the hunger strikes and then the student union leaders announcing that the university was going to participate, what happened with classes? Did they kind of just stop or did students try to balance classes or was it. . . .
AW: So that’s a really good question and they were like on and off. My recollection of this whole period was not a whole lot was happening in terms of classes. I think there was some coursework happening. I recall my students were feeling very stressed about missing classes. They were very obviously concerned about their grades, but they certainly also wanted to participate so there yeah, some classes were being held on certain days but there were other times when basically it was like every day seemed to be a demonstration; there were class boycotts, there were hunger strikes, there were sit-ins. Also, there started to become worker strikes as well. And some students just went home.
CL&P: In the reaction of the female students, I know in your essay “Despair and Hope: A Changsha Chronicle,” you actually do discuss about how the 1989 protests and the movement that was catching the nation was actually in some ways empowering to female students who engaged in the protests. Can you talk maybe a little bit more about that? And put it in a little bit more of a context?
Changsha shopowners providing free tea to the students to show their support – a photo by Andréa Worden from May, 1989
AW: Changsha came alive during this period of time, so roughly let’s say early May or mid-May through June 4, and it was incredible to witness that. There had been such a feeling of hopelessness beforehand and also this feeling of just total boredom and depression that people felt like they had no [choices]. One student had said, “Oh, I thought I was going to go to college and leaving my parents, and was excited about more freedom,” and he said, “When I got to Hunan Medical University it was like I was in prison.”
They had so many rules and were so tightly controlled and they had to sort of watch every step that they took and just be very, very careful. They just felt truly oppressed or repressed, suppressed. They couldn’t really express their individuality. There was a lot of conformity. You had to say the right the thing, you had to act a certain way, and I think students kind of particularly enjoyed our English, not just mine but my fellow English teachers, our classes because we were sort of like, “Okay, you can come to English class and you can say whatever you want.”
We encouraged them obviously to say how they felt and write essays about kind of interesting topics. I think they also felt that they could say more in English than they could in their Chinese classes in terms of maybe possibly “sensitive issues.” They were still kind of watching because they had to still be careful, they were watching sort of what they were saying but it was a breath of fresh air, our classes. I think that they didn’t have much of that elsewhere. So that period when the demonstrations had started, when people were sort of writing these wall posters, when they are out and about looking at and watching the demonstrations or just talking among themselves, the students were talking among themselves, what’s happening? What’s happening in Beijing? Where is this going? Or analyzing what was happening on the political level. Clearly there was a split that was coming to the fore between Li Peng and the hardliners, and Zhao Ziyang. People were very busy talking about that, analyzing this, where was it going to go? What was happening? They were talking about also the dynamics among the schools in Changsha. So it was just this heady time. Basically everyone I think, many people felt they had now the space and the freedom to speak out, including women.
So that was fantastic to see both because they looked so alive, they looked so engaged and happy and sort of free, really free. Anyway, both the men and the women, so the female and the male students, but I think it was interesting because the male students would kind of be quite surprised and sometimes I was too when they would see one of their female classmates who had been perhaps quite maybe fairly demure, shy, didn’t seem to be thinking about much of anything, making speeches on the corner, on the street corner in Changsha about large ideas and large principles of freedom, transparency, accountability, democracy, what do we do about corruption. Just talking, talking, talking.
So in that respect I think everybody felt empowered and that was wonderful. It was inspiring to see and it was also, I think they all inspired each other and I think just people took a particular pleasure at seeing the female students step up into that role.
CL&P: Then so on May 20th, 1989, martial law was declared. What was the reaction in Changsha?
AW: I also should back up a little bit. April 26  was the day The People’s Daily issued this editorial that declared the Beijing protests, what was happening in Tiananmen Square, declared it to be “turmoil.” So dongluan [动乱]. These sort of naïve – they didn’t use the word naïve – but students were being taken advantage of by a small handful of people who were anti-party, who were anti-socialist.
Very hard line, they didn’t acknowledge the students’ patriotism, which was very much front and center in Beijing and also Changsha. People [protesting] were very, very clear that they loved their country; they loved China. They were unhappy about the political system. They were very unhappy about corruption and they were looking for change and more freedoms. So that editorial, just like in Beijing, caused a huge reaction [in Changsha]. Anyways, so more protests, then in terms of May 20, Changsha, the people in Changsha were reacting to what was happening in Beijing.
When martial law was declared – it was the night of May 19th but actually it was supposed to take effect May 20 – people were very upset, very despondent. They felt like okay, this is done. Again it was despair. Our country is going to mobilize the army against us, against the people, against the students and so it was horrible. They felt betrayed.
CL&P: So just. . . and when martial law was declared, how did you feel? Were you scared?
AW: So I sort of felt similarly to my students. I had noted in my article, there was this feeling of “how could our government be so cruel?” So it was this alternation between feeling hopeful and feeling disempowered and just feeling despair. I felt, I couldn’t believe it. I was also just felt absolutely. . . .I also felt depressed and just thinking “oh, this is not going to end well,” but I wasn’t actually scared in Changsha.
As it became clear pretty quickly that troops were not going to proceed into the sort of inner city of Beijing or to Tiananmen, they were sort of stuck on the outside of suburbs, and that there was so
Army troops in Beijing when martial law was declared. The students were able to push them back without incident
much popular support. That then, once the students in Beijing went back out on the streets after May 20th, or maybe that was even the night of May 20th. Anyway, they went back after this [martial law] was declared because they saw that the people were essentially on their side and so when that happened there was this other wave of . . . . [Ed. Note: When martial law was declared, the Chinese government had organized the Beijing division of the army to stop the protests. However the student, workers and citizen protesters stopped the troops from entering the city and, with no shots fired, pushed the troops back.]
CL&P: Wave of hope.
AW: . . . hope. It’s like okay, there is a possible hopeful outcome for all of this.
CL&P: Then did the students in Changsha continue to protest when they saw the Beijing students?
AW: They did, yes. They absolutely did. Right, so that news from Beijing, about essentially the people of the city stopping the advancement of the troops, definitely gave the people of Changsha and the students in Changsha sort of a renewed sense of hope, yes. They continued to protest in various ways.
CL&P: Then the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th is the massacre at Tiananmen Square. So the massacre [also] in and around Tiananmen Square that occurred the night of June 3rd into the morning of June 4th, how did you learn about it?
AW: So I learned about. . . I learned about it from my students actually. So they had gotten up earlier than me on Sunday morning. That was a Sunday morning, June 4. And a handful of them came running over to our, excuse me, to the Yale-China house where the teachers were and were yelling to us from outside and just to say what had happened and they again had heard from. . . not only I guess at this point VOA but also the government was starting to spin this.
Actually one other thing I wanted to say that was also actually incredibly hopeful there was a three week period in May where the newspapers, the journalists probably throughout China, were actually reporting the real news, which was incredible, including in Changsha. So the Changsha Evening News – it’s just something I would read – they were reporting what was happening in Beijing, actual real news because there was sort of this opening.
CL&P: Ostensibly the newspaper would still be government-controlled. . . .
CL&P: . . . but they were still writing the truth.
AW: Right, because they were protesting. The journalists, journalists were protesting on Tiananmen Square. Yes. They’d gotten involved. And also Shanghai there were large journalist protests, so that’s a whole other piece of the story that’s fascinating.
But anyway, so the morning of June 4, people were just incredibly upset, everybody. Some people were showing it more vividly. They were manifesting their emotions in sort of a more visible way than others, but we were just. . . . I remember just personally being floored, amazed, sort of incredibly depressed and also really felt for my students; they were very upset about the news.
We also just kind of couldn’t believe it. It’s unbelievable, right? The People’s Liberation Army opening fire on unarmed protestors. Peaceful protesters. So that is a vivid memory of learning about that from my students that morning.
Then after that, so June 4 later in the day and June 5, probably even into June 6th there were – yes, definitely into June 6 – there were definitely, there were protests against the military suppression.
CL&P: In Changsha?
AW: In Changsha. They were protesting. Also again, this is another part of the untold story. There are many, many untold stories of the spring of sort of April 15 to June 6, 7, 1989 and this is one of them. There were many, many, many cities throughout China where residents, workers, students were protesting against the violence in Beijing.
Photo taken by Andréa on June 5, 1989 – sign in Changsha that says “People of Changsha take action/rise up to support Beijing!”
CL&P: So after the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, other cities, including Changsha continued to protest even though they knew full well that there was a possibility their army could open fire on them.
AW: Yes. Right, so we know Louisa Lim has done a very nice job in her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, telling what she could find out about the Chengdu story. Still, she’s like, “There’s much we don’t know.” But she does a great job laying out what she’s been able to discover. I think also from other things that I’ve read it’s clear that the mobilization at that time of the military – June 3, 4 – that that very likely was a call across the country to all major cities. Because basically in Changsha, people kept saying there’s a rumor that troops are right outside the city. [Ed. Note: In our interview with Frank Upham about his experience in Wuhan during this time period, he too recollects the “rumor” that there were troops outside of Wuhan, ready to suppress the post-June 4 protests.]
And they’re going to come in at any time. And if you read other accounts in the book that you mentioned, The Pro-Democracy Protest in China: Reports from the Provinces, I see many of the other reports from the provinces, same thing. People were hearing that the troops were right outside the city ready to sort of. . . ready to come into the city and suppress protests as necessary. So there was basically a nationwide mobilization.
So people were kind of scared about that. That’s one moment where I was definitely feeling a bit scared because there was clearly an anti-Western turn, particular anti-American turn at this point. Not among the students or friends or faculty, but just overall politically. The CCP, the party secretary at the school and in Changsha, it was like this is an American. . . .Americans are behind this. Fang Lizhi taking refuge in the [US] Embassy with his wife. So this was all unfortunate because we then, the American teachers, were very concerned that we were going to become targets.
What was interesting about that time was that these protests also, sort of in a way became a bit more radical in they basically were causing – it was workers, it was students, it was residents. Many people were involved in blocking the train tracks so no trains could move. So the whole railroad operation was at a standstill.
Also, blocking major intersections. So they would corral buses and trucks. It was really, it was anarchy but it was peaceful anarchy in a way. These were actions that the Changsha populace supported.
There was debris in the streets. I remember the ride out to the airport. [Ed. Note: Andréa left Changsha on June 11, 1989]. The driver was trying to figure out how to get around all these roadblocks. We just saw there was a lot of sort of debris in the streets. So anyway, yeah, I’m not sure if I answered your question, but yeah, so they went on for a couple days but there was also a sense of who’s really in control? Also, again this fascinating feeling of this is so incredibly unusual.
With constant surveillence, don’t expect a Tiananmen protest anytime soon
CL&P: So your experience in the spring of 1989 in Changsha, what impact did it have on you?
AW: It was an incredible moment, incredible time. It was very dramatic. So our exit [on June 11, 1989], our leaving, we left very abruptly. It was really sort of an evacuation. Yale-China Association essentially said, “There will be a plane and you are getting on it and you are coming back.” Our parents were of course like, “Get out of there.” As we were leaving, many people said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen and you have to tell the world what happened here in Changsha.” Because people knew that they wouldn’t then be able to write about it or talk about it or even develop their photographs.
I was thinking about this recently. When I was out watching the protests and sort of taking photographs and documenting, just noting down some of the wall posters, some of the slogans, everyone had a camera, or some people had cameras and were taking photos. Where are all those photos? After June 4 people could not get that film developed. So where did all that go? There’s all this sense of this missing history and I think also people realizing they were not going to be able to tell their story. [Ed. Note: On May 31, 2019, Jian Liu, a student protestor in Beijing in 1989, developed some of his rolls of film from that time.]
I think they were very proud that they came out to support Beijing, to support the students and the workers. So the Changsha workers also got very involved in all of this, which of course made everybody in the government, Party folks, the most nervous. They felt really proud because this was such an empowering moment for them and they were like “we did something here. We didn’t succeed in the end. We want the world to know. We want people to know.” So I did feel this sense of like wow, returning to the US, I had this new sense of feeling very appreciative of the freedoms we have here and the rights that we have here. And that the absence of these rights and freedoms were just so apparent immediately once it was clear that the hardliners [Li Peng, etc.] had won this battle. That people wouldn’t be able to talk about this, and that. . .again, they had to toe the party line. My students had told me that they had two weeks of mandatory political education in the fall of I think it was, yeah, fall or maybe the summer, later in the summer.
Some of them said it was horrible. Some of them totally bought the party line. So anyway, so I felt very much like I wanted to do something to help support the democracy movement in China because it wasn’t going away. These feelings were. . . and these desires, these wants, were felt widely in China and I wanted to do what I could with the freedoms that I have to support their efforts. So when I got back I was starting a PhD program in Chinese History at Stanford, but I was quite involved in Human Rights in China [HRiC], it was just starting to get going – the organization Human Rights In China – doing what I could to help. Also to try to tell the story I helped put the book together, Children of the Dragon, for Human Rights in China. So, I have been involved on and off in various ways over the years in this cause. It’s basically taken on different forms and shapes over the years.
CL&P: What do you think ultimately is the legacy of the Tiananmen Massacre?
AW: So probably there are a few different answers to that. I think it’s an important question. One aspect of the legacy, or one legacy. . .there is very much, what did the Chinese Communist Party learn from this? Deng Xiaoping early on said that this is all – it’s in the Tiananmen Papers and it’s in Zhao Ziyang’s “secret journal,” The Prisoner of the State – the transcription of his audio tapes – that Deng felt that they had been too lax with ideological work.
So early on, in ’87, maybe end of ’86, there had been student protests then followed by the anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign and the anti-spiritual pollution campaign. It’s right when I arrived in China. I was a little bit nervous about that. But the people, they were like, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” I was in Tianjin. I spent the first six months in Tianjin and the teachers and the folks that I interacted with in Tianjin were like, “Oh, don’t worry.”
I’d see signs up everywhere about anti-this, anti-that. Essentially anti-western kind of everything. They [the people] would just say, “No, you’re so welcome here. Don’t worry. Don’t pay attention to any of that. We’re not paying attention to it.” So basically Deng was like “this [Tiananmen] is because of lax ideological work.” So we see now 30 years later, Xi Jinping, you cannot say that he’s lax.
CL&P: Yeah. He’s anything but.
Current Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) – is he just a little Mao?
AW: He’s anything but. Right. Over the years, since 1989, there have been moments that were a bit more open. But the overall trend has been “not lax.” And control of information of course, censorship as the internet grew, of course media censorship – so not lax.
So there’s that aspect of essentially political education and indoctrination, ideological education. We see that now tenfold, a hundred fold in Xinjiang with what’s happening with the Uighurs. They’re in concentration camps, probably 1.5 million all told and very much of this is about political education, forced education among other things. So forced ideological kind of education. So one aspect is this, that we have to sort of control information, control thought.
But there’s also just the physical, this physicality, if you will, of the protest. Now it’s physically impossible with all of the surveillance cameras and everything. They want to prevent you from even having the thought of protesting. That’s what a lot of the ideological education is about. And also of course everything is watched and surveilled. So you can’t even mobilize people, like five people. . . . it’s very difficult to mobilize even five or 10 people to do anything. So, it’s extremely hard to imagine a scenario where people are back on Tiananmen Square.
Also, of course another lesson was we need to train people’s armed police, armed forces. We need to be able to also have trained police, quasi-military forces, whatever, to deal with anything that might happen. Like essentially riot police, if you will. So they’ve got that whole aspect of things totally also nailed down.
Obviously we do see these sort of spontaneous or very small efforts here and there, but they’re immediately shutdown. So I think no more Tiananmens is of course a big legacy, and no little Tiananmens in terms of the protest. Then also of course in terms of the legacy, this is such a sensitive issue for the Communist Party, this whole period, particularly the massacre and the incredible spin they put. The story they’ve told that they continue now 30 years later to detain people who might mention June 4 or write something trying to commemorate June 4. One recent example is the folks, the four people in Chengdu I believe with the June 4 liquor labels. [Ed. Note: In 2016, a few people in Chengdu created a liquor label for a few bottles of Chinese rice wine – called “bai jiu” – a sound similar to the word for 1989 – “ba jiu” – with pictures of a man stopping a line of tanks. These men were arrested for subverting state power and were recently sentenced.]
CL&P: Yes. Yes.
The baijiu bottle that resulted in arrests and sentences for four indivduals
AW: I think it was even like one bottle. Then it was like three-year or four-year sentences for that.
So, it’s that level of insecurity, of absolute intolerance toward any sort of expression around June 4 and commemorating the dead, those who were killed. Some have also called to re-designate those protests as patriotic and as not turmoil, something that is going to continue to be something that people will continue to call for. But the CCP, I can’t imagine them really doing that. It would seriously have to be major political reform for that to happen. But one day I’m hopeful, one day that that will indeed happen. [Ed. Note: Rights Lawyer Teng Biao echoed a similar sentiment in his interview: that the Tiananmen protests will not be remembered on mainland China unless there is significant political reform. For him, that is democracy in China.]
And that particularly I wanted to also just mention the group The Tiananmen Mothers. [These are] family members who lost loved ones in Beijing June 3 and 4 in 1989 and who have just been an amazing force to try to uncover – because the Chinese government isn’t and is trying to suppress this information – trying to uncover the names and identities and sort of details about who was killed that night. They’re still at it. They’re calling for an investigation, for compensation and for an apology. Anyway, it’s important to also honor their efforts and their loss.
CL&P: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you and also echo your sentiments that there’s still a lot of brave Chinese that are still trying to commemorate what happened on June 4th and the bravery of their fellow citizens. But I want to also thank you for also writing down your stories and remembering for the Chinese people who can’t right now develop their photos of what happened during that time period and commemorate it in the way they can. So thank you again, Andréa for sharing and do you have any last words?
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) protesting at Tiananmen, spring 1989. He would latter be sentenced to 11 years for participating in 2008’s Charter ’08 and would ultimately die will serving his term.
AW: Yes. Thank you so much. Although it’s a grim topic, if you will, I appreciate the opportunity to sort of share this with you. I do actually want to end on another note of hope, which is that another legacy of Tiananmen is also those people who continue to fight for democracy and human rights in China. For example, Charter ’08 and the Charter ’08 Movement, Liu Xiaobo and many others, many of the human rights lawyers, there is a direct line from 1989 through Charter ’08 to today.
So a lot of the activism is happening outside of China now, but there still are activists in China doing what they can in the very limited space that they have to essentially fight for human rights, for rule of law, and political freedom.
CL&P: Yes. Thank you for reminding us of that.
AW: Okay, thanks, Elizabeth.
CL&P: Thank you.
*********************************************************************************************************************** This ends China Law & Policy’s interview series, #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History. If you missed our interview with Frank Upham who was in Wuhan in May and June 1989, please click here. If you missed our interview with human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who recounted the indoctrination he received after Tiananmen and then his awakening to the truth, click here.
Never forget the murder, but more importantly, never forget the hope
For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate its murder of hundreds – if not thousands – of Chinese students, workers and civilians. Thirty years later, the question now is, will the Chinese people ever know their own history? As memories fade, Tiananmen mothers die, and the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, the answer seems to be leaning toward no.
That is why those outside of China must never forget June 4, 1989 and continue to memorialize and investigate the events. Someday, the Chinese people will be free to remember their history as they choose to; not as the Communist Party tells them to. When that moment happens, the Chinese will be able to access the memories that the rest of the world has temporarily maintained on their behalf.
In that effort, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, China Law & Policy sat down with a couple of eyewitnesses to that history. One, who was in Wuhan at the time, still remembers the eerie music that played the morning that the students learned of the killings in Beijing. Another cannot forget the names of the soldiers that were killed during the crackdown that he and his high school classmates were forced to memorize in their political indoctrination classes, only learning about the hundreds of students killed years later. A third witnessed the citizens of Changsha who, in their euphoria during the hopeful days before June 4, took thousands of photos. She now wonders, 30 years later, if those rolls of film will ever be developed.
When the students ruled the Tiananmen Square, May/June 1989
Please join us over the next week, where we post these stories of remembrance. Our interview series, #Tiananmen30 – Eyewitnesses to History, will kick off tomorrow with Professor Frank Upham who recounts his memories from his time in Wuhan in the spring of 1989.
This past Saturday, China Law & Policy marked the 8th anniversary of its founding. But a commemorative birthday piece seemed inappropriate with the news that a few days earlier China’s only Noble Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, died in police custody.
Since the founding of this blog, Liu Xiaobo has been in jail. His crime? His speech. And in examining the Chinese government’s cruel response to Liu’s death, it is this speech that this aspiring superpower continues to fear. Liu Xiaobo was not a murderer, a terrorist, and or even a revolutionary. He was merely a Chinese activist, academic and public intellectual that for close to 30 years, used his pen to call upon the Chinese government to live up to its commitment to human rights; a commitment that China has agreed to by signing on to certain international treaties; a commitment that was written into the amended Chinese Constitution in 2004.
Liu’s most recent prison sentence wasn’t his first. In 1989, Liu, who came back to China from a prestigious fellowship at Columbia University to support the students in Tiananmen Square, was sentenced to almost two years in jail for partaking in the movement. When he was released, Liu lost his university position and his writings were
Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) at the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square. Later, Liu would be credited with brokering a peace with the troops to allow the couple of hundred of students left on the Square on June 4 to leave without bloodshed.
banned in China. In 1996 Liu was imprisoned for three years, this time in a Re-Education Through Labor camp, for a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people. Then, in late 2008, Liu co-drafted a document known as “Charter 08.” Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system. Nothing terribly revolutionary. But for that, Liu was arrested, tried for inciting subversion of state power and, on Christmas Day 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years. When he died last Thursday, Liu had only had about two years left on his sentence. He hadn’t been heard from since his 2009 conviction.
But the silencing of Liu Xiaobo for the past eight years was not enough for the current regime. When he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese government vehemently criticized the choice and placed his wife, Liu Xia, under unlawful house arrest, house arrest that continues to today. The Chinese internet was censored for any mention of Liu and the state-controlled media was not allowed to report on his prize.
Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in happier times.
And even though, according to his wife, Liu was diagnosed by prison doctors with hepatitis B as early as 2010, his hepatitis was allowed to fester into liver cancer. It appears that that Liu was only given proper medical treatment when it was too late – when the antiviral drugs that slows down hepatitis B from becoming liver cancer would no longer work, when embolization of the tumor would no longer be effective and when surgery could no longer be used to save a life. It was only when the cancer became truly incurable that the Chinese government permitted Liu Xiaobo to go to a hospital – under constant guard – and die with his wife by his side. But even in his dying days, he was still denied dignity; the state-controlled media released pictures of Liu in the hospital, maintaining that the state had only given him the best care. They would not let him go abroad as he requested, likely fearing that he would use his final breaths to criticize the Chinese government.
The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the empty chair where Liu Xiaobo was to sit.
With his death on Thursday, the Chinese regime rushed to hold a funeral so that Liu’s friends and admirers could not make it. By Saturday morning, Liu Xiaobo’s wife buried his ashes at sea, likely at the demand of the Chinese government so that it could ensure that a tombstone would not be erected and potentially serve as a pilgrimage site. Liu’s brother was paraded on state-run TV stating that the quick sea burial was the family’s wishes. Even in his death, Liu was used as a propaganda tool, with pictures of his shell-shocked wife standing by the coffin and mechanically lowering his ashes into the ocean. Since Thursday, 1.4 billion Chinese people have experienced a news blackout on anything related to Liu Xiaobo. International news channels were pulled from the air, the state-run media has been ordered not to report on Liu’s passing and Chinese censors have been in overdrive, taking down posts with RIP and candle emojis as the Chinese people attempt to publicly show their respect to their countryman.
Thousands of mourners in Hong Kong hold a march in honor of Liu Xiaobo. (Photo courtesy of the Guardian)
China is the second largest economy in the world and most believe that it will soon supplant the United States as the Asia regional superpower. But yet this is how it responds to the death of one critique in its midst. A man whose only weapons were words and thoughts. If China still wonders why it can’t successfully project soft power internationally, this is it. While the Chinese government protests that it treated Liu with utmost care in prison, provided as much medical care as possible at the end, and permitted his family to hold a funeral, it still can’t ignore the fact that it imprisoned – and essentially killed – a man for his thoughts. The last Noble Peace Prize winner to die in state custody was Carl von Ossietky, the 1935 winner who, in 1938, died in a Nazi concentration camp. It’s never a good thing to be compared to the Nazi regime.
But even more troubling is that the Chinese regime’s suppression of Liu Xiaobo’s speech – both in life and in death – reflects a government that does not trust its own people. Is Liu’s words going to cause revolution in the streets? Probably not. But yet they cannot be heard. And in recent years, that distrust has only worsened. Two years ago, the Chinese government conducted a nationwide crackdown on China’s civil rights lawyers, lawyers who use the legal system to protect people’s legal rights; nothing particularly revolutionary about that tactic. And any civil society organization that becomes too successful, is shut down. The Chinese people are left with no outlet to shape their own society and demand that their government live up to its ideals. Instead, the Chinese government distrusts anyone who it believes dissents. But as Liu Xiaobo noted in the speech that was read at his Noble Prize ceremony, that enemy mentality will be a setback to progress:
Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. . . . Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.
Impromptu memorial for Liu Xiaobo in Flushing, Queens, NYC (Courtesy of Facebook)
And Liu’s words and thoughts are not just ripe for the Chinese government right now but for all of us. Especially as the current United States Administration focuses less on human rights. On Thursday, President Trump issued a pathetic statement on Liu’s death through his press secretary. And only after he gushed about the greatness of China’s president Xi Jinping a mere hours after Liu’s passing. It wasn’t just China who lost a hero on Thursday, but the world. And the world needs the ideals of Liu Xiaobo now more than ever. May you rest in peace Liu Xiaobo and may we find the courage to continue your struggle both in China and in the world at large.
On Sunday, the sun will rise once again on Tiananmen Square, much like it did on the same Sunday 28 years ago. But unlike that Sunday – June 4, 1989 – Beijing will not awaken to its city occupied by the Chinese military nor the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square littered with the dead bodies of unarmed civilians.
Instead, life will go on in China with no official acknowledgement of the anniversary of that fateful day 28 years ago when the Chinese government ordered its military to open fire on its own people. The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.
Hundreds of thousands gather on Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989 (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)
Contrary to the CCP’s interpretation of events, the protests in Beijing were not counter-revolutionary attempts to undermine the CCP. And contrary to the Western media’s perceptions at the time, it was not an effort to bring Western democracy to China. Instead, the protests were deeply rooted in China’s own history and tradition, a tradition of students conducting patriotic demonstrations in an effort to strengthen their country.
In 1989, those efforts were directed at the nepotism and corruption that was beginning to plague the CCP, the economic turmoil brought on by inflation, the lack of personal freedoms and government censorship. While students started the protests, eventually, much of the populace joined in, with workers going on strike to support the movement. By mid-May, the protests would draw over a million people on a daily basis. Neither the May 19 declaration of martial law nor the pleading by sympathetic leaders for protesters to clear the square stopped the protests. And on June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping gave the order for the army to fire on the civilians.
Tanks roll onto Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989
For a brief time after the crackdown, the CCP did acknowledge the event. Not to celebrate the brave men and women who gave their lives to better their country, but to condemn them. Slowly, however, the CCP’s policy changed and instead of trying to change the narrative of that night, the CCP chose to forget it. Today, the Tiananmen massacre is largely scrubbed from the Chinese internet, it is not allowed to be discussed openly and many of the children born after 1989 do not know of the truth of that night.
But every year, there are still those in China willing to risk their freedom to commemorate the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square. A few years ago it was Chinese netizens reposting the image of the Tank Man – the Chinese citizen stopping a line of tanks, a banned picture on the Chinese internet – standing in front of a line of large, yellow rubber ducks. The picture spread on the Chinese internet until the Chinese authorities got wind, and censored “yellow rubber duck.” This year, it is four men who produced a Chinese rice wine with a label that references “6*4”, a shorthand for the June 4 crackdown, and calls on people to “never forget.” While the bottle has been smuggled out of China by a sympathetic Chinese official, those four men are currently facing charges of inciting subversion of state power.
As much as the CCP may try, China will not forget the brave men and women who lost their lives on June 4, 1989. For there are still enough Chinese people who are willing to put their safety on the line to ensure that that does not happen.
Wang Nan (pronounced Wong Nan) is a 45 year old Beijinger. Born in 1970, he has seen his city radically change under China’s economic miracle. In fact, as a photojournalist, he has documented China’s unfathomable rise and has been fortunate enough to partake in it. Wang Nan and his wife live more than comfortably in their renovated, Western-style apartment, where his photos from around the world line the walls. He knows he has been lucky, and he will tell you that immediately when you meet him; even with his world travels, he is still a fairly humble man. His 11-year-old daughter worships him even when he sings off key on their Sunday morning car rides to visit his mother. His 78-year-old mother, like all mothers, criticizes him as soon as he arrives – his hair is too long, he’s too skinny, he spoils his daughter – her granddaughter – too much. But like all mothers, she is proud of her son. And Sunday is her favorite day of the week.
But Wang Nan is not 45 years old. He has not shared in China’s economic miracle. He does not have a daughter. And he never sees his mother. For Wang Nan never made it past the age of 19. Instead, in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, on the corner of Nancheng Street and Chang’an Boulevard – the Boulevard of Eternal Peace – a People’s Liberation Army’s bullet ripped through this high school student’s head.
June 4, 1989, the aftermath of the Tian’anmen Crackdown
beating when doctors found him unconscious, bleeding from the head. They wanted to take him to the hospital, but the soldiers forbade it. Frantically, the doctors used their last bandage to cover his wound and stayed with him until he died two hours later. With the sun rising on that June 4 morning 26 years ago and desperate to hide the bodies, the soldiers dug a shallow grave in the lawn of the nearby school and dumped Wang Nan’s body there along with two other civilians. There it would lie until a few days later, when the stench was overwhelming and the dirt was beginning to wash away, the health department came to collect the bodies.
Wang Nan’s mother, Zhang Xianling (pronounced Zhang See-ann Ling), one of the founders of the Tian’anmen Mothers, has never been allowed to visit the spot where her son took his last breath. Every June 4, she is held under house arrest, with police standing guard at her apartment door, refusing to let her leave or for anyone else to come in. In a symbol of tormented anguish, she will communicate with the outside world on the anniversary of her son’s death by holding a photo of him out of her apartment window.
Zhang Xianling with a picture of her son, Wang Nan, killed on June 4, 1989
Twenty-six years later, as Lim poignantly recounts in her book, it is this impediment to remembrance and the Chinese Communist Party’s (“CCP”) complete control of the history surrounding June 4th that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. And as Lim points out, it is not just the parents who lost children that are not permitted to remember. Bao Tong (pronounced Bow (rhymes with pow) Tongue), director of China’s Office of Political Reform in 1989 and right-hand man to his mentor Zhao Ziyang, believed that Deng’s economic reform must be coupled with political reform, otherwise corruption would prevail. After the Tian’anmen crackdown, it was those thoughts that were blamed for the student protests and resulted in a seven year prison sentence for Bao. In 2005, when Zhao Ziyang passed away, the police, which constantly stand guard at his apartment, refused to let Bao attend the funeral. When his elderly wife attempted to go, the police pushed her to the ground, causing her to break a bone.
It is this recounting of the people’s history and the ghosts that still haunt them, that makes The People’s Republic of Amnesiaone of the most important and moving books about the Tian’anmen crackdown. Lim also does an excellent and unbiased job of describing the precise events that lead up to the crackdown making the book a must read for anyone who wants to understand China’s history and the current leadership’s obsession with “social stability” and complete control.
But Lim not only tells the stories of those who witnessed the crackdown, but also those for whom June 4, 1989 has no significance, namely the babies born after 1990. In one study that Lim conducted, only 15 out of 100 Chinese college students were able to identify the infamous Tank Man photo, a photo that epitomizes the Tian’anmen crackdown and that is perhaps one of the world’s greatest symbols of courage. She follows a college student who goes to Hong Kong to try to understand Tian’anmen, but when he returns to China, he just seems confused and deflated. And then there is the Patriot, a Chinese car salesman who goes to Beijing to participate in the government-sponsored protests against the Japanese. Their failure and inability to know about the Tian’anmen crackdown demonstrates the true effectiveness of the CCP’s re-writing of the Chinese people’s history.
Or does it? Yes, there is a generation of Chinese who have not heard of the Tian’anmen massacre. And then there are others who choose not to care. But to assume that the CCP can so easily erase this dark moment in China’s history is to deny the Chinese people their conscience. There is still a generation of Chinese – those born in the late 1960s and early 1970s – who know about Tian’anmen because they were alive when it happened. When this generation comes to power and can change the history, will they? Yes they might be busy making money now, but they have yet to ascend to leadership roles that would enable them to disclose the truth and recognize the bravery of those who died on June 4, 1989.
Tens of thousands march in Hong Kong last year to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre
There are the 11 Chinese college students, currently studying in various universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, who wrote an open letter to the Chinese people to communicate what happened on June 4, 1989. The government-controlled Global Times responded with an op-ed condemning these students. Like the students of 1989, these students have chosen to jeopardize their futures in China in an attempt to get the CCP to acknowledge June 4.
And then there are those – like the doctors who tried to help Wang Nan as he laid dying or the medical intern who, knowing the danger, gave Zhang Xianling her son’s last effects, or the individual who took out an ad in 2007 in a Chengdu newspaper stating “Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of June 4 victims” – who, when confronted with the choice, will do what is morally right, not what is politically expedient.
For these people, the world must continue to remember June 4, 1989, so that when the Chinese people themselves can commemorate this anniversary on their own terms, the memory will still be there.
The Goddess of Democracy – the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests
Twenty-five years ago, on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square. That violent crackdown marked the end of seven weeks of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square itself, protests that were supported by much of the rest of Beijing, protests that would amass hundreds of thousands of people a day, protests that people wistfully thought would change China.
Twenty-five years later the students who participated in the protests are no longer fresh-faced, wide-eyed college kids, the workers who supported them are retired, and many of the bicycle rickshaw drivers who ferried dying students to hospitals on that bloody Sunday morning are long gone. Along Chang’An Avenue, glitzy buildings have replaced the blood and bullet holes. Starbucks stand near where students once went on hunger strikes. Tiananmen is different; China is different. But yet there are some things that remain the same.
The government that ordered the crackdown 25 years ago – the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – is still in power and many of the gripes that initiated the student protests – corruption and nepotism among political elites, lack of personal freedoms, and government censorship – have only gotten worse and continue to be the impetuous for activists. And, like the students in 1989, these activists are still willing to risk their lives to promote the values enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and guide China to become a better place for its people.
But make no mistake, while these factors might be the same, there are important aspects of China that have changed. In
Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents – students, workers, ordinary people – supported the protests.
particular, China’s rise as a global power. Criticizing China for human rights violations and its failure to live up to its own laws is not as easy as it was in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush cut off government ties, military relations, and the sale of U.S. government goods the day after the Chinese government’s crackdown. Imagine denying U.S. businesses the opportunity to sell products to the world’s second largest economy? That would never happen today. And to severe relations with China – would the American public want to so easily give up its cheap Walmart goods or be denied the ability to obtain the newest iPhone? Probably not. The Chinese government understands the soothing and influential comforts of our material desires.
But perhaps the most troublesome change is how the CCP now deals with dissent. If the last few months are any guide, excessive violence continues to be the modus operandi of the CCP. Cao Shunli (pronounced Ts-ow Shoon-lee), an activist who organized small, peaceful protests that called for citizen participation in China’s United Nations human rights review, was detained for “picking quarrels and causing trouble,” was denied medical treatment for months, and died in police custody. Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Jee tee-an), a disbarred-lawyer-now-activist that sought to assist Falun Gong practitioners, has recounted the physical torture he suffered while in police custody in March. Since coming out of detention with 16 broken ribs, Tang has all but effectively been denied appropriate medical care for his tuberculosis which has gotten significantly worse.
Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square
But the CCP has learned from its mistakes. No longer is its violence against dissent as public as it was the morning of June 4, 1989. And no longer does the CCP come off as a lawless regime. Instead, its cloaks its crackdowns with a veneer of legality. Since April 2014, in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government has detained – either criminally or through unofficial house arrest – over 84 individuals. But these individuals are not detained under the guise of being counter revolutionaries like the students of the 1989 movement. That would be too obvious. Instead, the Chinese government has slapped the vague and overly broad crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” After 20 years of Western rule of law programs, the CCP has come to realize that the easiest way to deflect global criticism is to follow legal procedure, no matter how abusive, vague or entrapping that legal procedure might be.
If the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen means anything, China’s new strategy – the use of law to suppress dissent – must be
Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students
examined and criticized. China’s activists are being violently detained and imprisoned in record numbers “in accordance with the law.” But that suppression of dissent is no different than what happened in 1989. It is another method of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys – ensuring that the violence against a few “troublemakers” teaches the rest of society not to rock the boat. This time though the rest of the world is increasingly complacent.
As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, China will be the lone nation that will not. Since 1989, its people have been forbidden to commemorate the event; they are not permitted to remember; they are not allowed to note those fateful days that changed their lives more than anything in China’s recent past. And that is why the events that other nations hold in honor of the many brave Chinese people who lost their lives on that night are so important. Because while the Chinese government has found new strategies to more effectively deal with international criticism of its treatment of its people, the one thing that the outside world still has is the truth. But that truth must not be limited to just what happened 25 years ago; it must also be used to call on China today stop its suppression of dissent today. To do otherwise is a disservice the victims of that night.
One of the most iconic photos of the 2oth Century – one man stands up to a line of tanks
Last November I attended a fascinating talk by Rebecca MacKinnon, guru on all things censored and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. At the talk, MacKinnon’s focus was on the Chinese corporations that do China’s censorship bidding. MacKinnon noted that China’s internet regulations are not enforced by the government; rather the companies that manage China’s various and extremely active blogs and microblogs are responsible for enforcing China’s online censorship laws and regulations. Yes such censorship leaves these companies’ customers angry, but its worth it for what they get in exchange: an exclusive monopoly that keeps out more sophisticated players like Facebook and Twitter.
But MacKinnon hypothesized that at some point it won’t be economically worth it for these companies to continue to censor. MacKinnon highlighted the complete internet shutdown that occurred in Xinjiang province in 2009 for the entire year. That shut down harmed the local and regional economy. But even that wasn’t enough to cause these internet companies to push back against the government’s internet censorship and control. Instead, MacKinnon mused about the impact that such efforts would have in a more populous region or city, say like Shanghai.
And on Monday it looked like perhaps China reached that tipping point. Monday, June 4, marked the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, a sensitive date for China’s Communist Party. On Monday, the Shanghai stock market closed 64.89 points down. But 64.89 is not just any number, it’s the numerical translation of June 4, 1989. As reported in the New York Times, searches for “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market” and “index” were censored in response to this coincidence.
But can you imagine a country that censors words that are important for commerce? These aren’t searches for “Chen Guangcheng” or other Chinese activists; those searches would pull results that are obviously about human rights. But searches for business terms? To censor that in a market relies on the speed and effectiveness of the internet is not just plain wacky but bad for business.
Obviously the Shanghai stock market censorship is not yet the tipping point as internet censorship is still alive and well. But it makes me wonder, are we getting closer? Is what MacKinnon speculated – that eventually the goals of the Chinese government and of the Chinese internet companies will diverge – inevitable? To the extent that you buy into the hypothesis that the Chinese people have “made a deal” with their government – that in exchange for economic security the Chinese will give up some of their political freedoms – is it inevitable that that deal will be broken? The Shanghai stock market debacle hints that maybe in the end its the Party’s own paranoid censorship that will be its death knell.
This morning, the Nobel Prize Committee announced the winner of its 2010 Nobel Peace Prize: Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Leo See-ow Bwo). But don’t expect Liu to be able to go to Norway to accept his prize; Liu is currently serving the first year of an 11-year prison term.
In all respects, Liu is perhaps the most famous of China’s human rights activists, at least internationally, and one of its longest serving. Liu, an intellectual, literary critic, professor and writer, first emerged on the human rights scene in 1989 during the Tian’anmen student protests. When the protests began in the Spring of 1989, Liu was at Columbia University in New York. Immediately boarding a flight, Liu, a professor at Beijing Normal University, joined the students in hunger strikes on Tian’anmen Square. But by June 3, sensing the danger of an impending crackdown, Liu encouraged the students to withdraw from the Square before the Chinese army was likely to violently suppress the student-led protests. While many of the students did leave the Square, Liu’s pleas were for naught; on the streets surrounding the Square, an unknown number, likely reaching in the thousands, were killed. After the suppression of the movement, Liu was tried for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement” and convicted although ultimately exempted from criminal punishment.
During the 1990s, Liu’s commitment to greater human rights in China did not waiver. In the long tradition of the Chinese dissident, Liu took up the pen and during the 1990s, wrote a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people. With his essays receiving accolades from abroad and censure from those high up in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese government detained him and sent him to a labor camp through China’s “Re-education Through Labor” (RETL). RETL is an administrative punishment, not a criminal one and has become an important tool of the Chinese government to suppress dissent. Even if China amends its criminal laws to be more in line with international standards, as long as it keeps RETL, the CCP will always have a way to suppress those individuals it deems a threat to its rule. Individuals like Liu Xiaobo.
But Liu’s current trouble stems from a document he helped author in late 2008 known as “Charter 08.” Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system. The morning that Charter 08 was to be posted to the internet, Liu was detained by police. Liu was eventually arrested, tried and in December 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years. In general, the average dissident sentence in China is between 3 and 5 years.
Given Liu’s current imprisonment doe this Nobel Peace Prize even matter? Most certainly. First, it brings attention to the weakness of the current Chinese regime. While most news stories in the Western press discuss China’s growing economic might and its increased military muscle and portray a China that is sure to achieve global dominance, Liu represents the very real flip-side of that story – a communist party that is increasingly fearful of any threats to its authority and that in many ways is retaining one-party rule on a shoe-string. Second, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu after vigorous protest and threats from the Chinese government. In fact, the Chinese government’s response has been shockingly quick – issuing a statement that Liu is a criminal and awarding him the prize is in contravention to the mission of the Nobel Committee. Given that many governments have shirked from confronting China on its recent suppression of rights activists for fear of upsetting trade ties, the Nobel Committee’s action reflects its commitment to human rights and acknowledges the importance of human rights in Western diplomacy.
But most importantly, the Nobel Committee’s actions will bring greater attention to Liu within China. Although famous internationally, with media and internet censorship domestically, many Chinese are unfamiliar with Liu and his quest for greater human rights. While censorship of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Liu will surely exist in China, because this news is so huge, stories will slip through the Great Firewall, and those Chinese with access to the internet will learn more of Liu’s work and the push for human rights in China.
But the award does not come lightly. If history is a guide, the Chinese government will likely increase repression on other rights activists in China in the immediate aftermath and abuse of Liu in prison is a very real possibility.
And from the White House and last Year’s Noble Peace Prize Winner:
Statement by the President on the Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo
I welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo. Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I. That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs. By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
As I said last year in Oslo, even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal to all human beings. Over the last 30 years, China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected. We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.