Tiananmen, 1989-2008

Emily Lau
4 June 2008

Today, 4 June 2008, is a fateful anniversary. Nineteen years ago, the authorities in Beijing ordered a bloody crackdown of the peaceful protestors on Tiananmen Square and in other parts of the Chinese capital. The People's Liberation Army turned their guns and tanks on the students and Beijing residents who were demonstrating against corruption, nepotism and suppression of basic human rights.
Emily Lau is a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco), representing The Frontier political group. Her website is here

Also by Emily Lau in openDemocracy:

"Hong Kong's long march to democracy" (14 March 2007)

It is not known how many people perished. Beijing should conduct an independent inquiry and present its findings to the country. This should include recommendations for rehabilitation and compensation for the victims and their families. On behalf of the government, the leaders in Beijing should make a formal apology to those victims. Only then can the healing of the nation begin.

In what was then the British colony of Hong Kong, over a million people took part in huge demonstrations to lend their support to the peaceful demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. The feeling of grief, anger and frustration rocked Hong Kong to its foundation. Each year since then on the evening of 4 June, thousands of people have gathered at Victoria Park to attend a candlelight vigil: both to remember the dead, and to show support for a democratic and free China.

The hard road

On 8 August 2008, the Olympic games will open in Beijing. When the Chinese government made a bid to host the Olympics in 2001, it gave an undertaking that it would enhance human rights and develop democracy. Seven years later, the promise has not been kept.

The reports on human rights in the People's Republic of China (PRC) published by human-rights organisations such as Amnesty International continue to paint a grim picture (see, for example, "Human Rights for China - the Olympics countdown", April 2008). The reports say that growing numbers of human-rights activists are imprisoned, harassed, put under house-arrest or surveillance. The torture of detainees and prisoners remains prevalent; there is also severe repression of minority groups, including Tibetans in the aftermath of the protests of March 2008. Further, the run-up to the Olympics has provided the police with an opportunity to extend the use of "re-education through labour" and "enforced drug rehabilitation" to "clean up" Beijing.

Also in openDemocracy on Hong Kong, China and democracy:

Christine Loh, "Hong Kong's democratic road: an interview" (16 September 2004)

Agnes Chong, "Hong Kong marches for 'one person, one vote'" (8 December 2005)

Li Datong, "Hong Kong's example" (7 February 2007) The Amnesty reports find that Chinese people who peacefully exercised rights such as freedom of expression and association remain at high risk of a number of repressive measures: enforced disappearance, illegal and incommunicado detention, house-arrest, surveillance, and beatings and harassment from both government officials and unidentified assailants. They estimate that about half a million people are subjected to punitive detention without charge or trial. Moreover, the targeting of human-rights defenders who raise politically sensitive issues is also increasing: the authorities seek to criminalise their activities by charging them with offences such as damaging public property, extortion and fraud.

Amnesty also estimates that for 11 million-13 million people, the only practical channel for justice remained outside the courts, in a system of petitioning to local and higher level authorities, where the vast majority of the cases remained unresolved.

The story of but one activist exemplifies these trends. Yang Chunlin is a human-rights defender from Heilongjiang province who supported a legal action brought by over 40,000 farmers whose land had been confiscated without compensation. He also helped to gather signatures for a petition entitled "We want human rights, not the Olympics"; many farmers signed the document.

Yang Chunlin was detained in July 2007 for "inciting subversion of state power"; in February 2008 he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. During his detention, he was repeatedly denied access to his family and lawyer on the grounds that his case was "related to the state". He was tortured on numerous occasions by having his arms and legs stretched and chained to the four corners of an iron bed, and was forced to eat, drink and defecate in that position. Such inhuman and degrading treatment is shocking and deeply deplorable.

The free mind

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Li Datong, "Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)
There are counter-trends which deserve to be noted. The space for civil-society activities is growing, for example. Indeed, there is visible evidence of that in the relief efforts by non-government organisations and individuals in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake disaster. Similarly, the media reaction to this catastrophe has been marked by the openness of much reporting from the region, albeit within an overall system of state-directed control over the flow of information, the topics and stories which can be published, the priorities and the taboo areas.

The freedom of the press, it should be recalled, is something the Tiananmen protestors campaigned for in 1989. Amnesty estimates that around thirty journalists are known to be in prison and at least fifty individuals have been jailed for posting their views on the internet. A single case that speaks for many of these is that of Hu Jia, a human-rights activist who was sentenced in March 2008 to three-and-a-half years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power". The court's grounds for convicting Hu consisted of press interviews and articles he posted on the internet.

The next step

The targeting of professional lawyers is a feature of government action to curb human-rights defenders; a favoured tactic is to refuse a "suspect" lawyer's application for a renewal of the licence needed to practice. In response, a support organisation - the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (of which I am vice-chairman) was formed in 2007.

The Concern Group wants human-rights lawyers and defenders to know there are people in Hong Kong who admire their moral courage and their determination to help the underprivileged and downtrodden. The Concern Group believes the rule of law and an independent legal and judicial system is imperative to a free and democratic China, and we will do our best to assist these lawyers in their endeavours.

They are among many who are upholding the values that the protestors on Tiananmen Square fought and died for. It must be admitted, nineteen years on from the Beijing massacre, that the road to a free and democratic China is long and rocky; but the fact that there are many still on this road is a sign of hope.

In October 1998, three years before it was awarded the chance to host the Olympic games and made its promise to enhance human rights and develop democracy, China took another declarative step: it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which entered into force in 1976). This covenant, however, has still not been ratified by China's supreme state body, the National People's Congress.

I hope the Olympic games will be a successful highlight of this momentous year. They will be all the more so if China lives up to the commitments and promises it made in 1998 and 2001. China should in the first instance ratify the civil-rights covenant, release all prisoners of conscience and journalists, and allow the media to operate freely. This may be a tall order, but I hope it will happen before 8 August 2008.

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