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January 31, 1999

The June Fourth Massacre: A Crime Against Humanity

Human Rights in China analyzes the significance of the unprecedented action to document specific crimes committed in the June Fourth Massacre, concluding that the testimonies and the victims' list present convincing evidence of crimes against humanity.

It has now been ten years since martial law troops, comprising soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and of the People's Armed Police (PAP) opened fire on the unarmed people of Beijing on June 3, 1989, initiating a massacre which took lives of young and old all over the city. Yet there has still been no official accounting for the civilians killed and wounded and no attempt to investigate what really happened, except in the crudest political terms.

An official publication issued by the Chinese authorities soon after about the "riots," The Truth About the Beijing Turmoil, claims that 6,000 troops had been injured and "scores" were killed. The book says that 3,000 civilians were wounded, and over 200, including 36 university students, died. These casualties occurred when troops "counter-attacked," it states, and "some rioters were killed, some onlookers were hit by stray bullets and some wounded or killed by armed ruffians." How this could have happened when soldiers only "fired into the air" as it claims is left unexplained.

More recently commentators have made much of the fact that the leadership generally now refers to the events of that year as a "political incident" rather than the more harsh-sounding "counterrevolutionary rebellion." But the denial of extensive loss of life among ordinary people in the official version, dubbed "the big lie" by many observers, has not been revised, even to a small extent. The attempt to impose collective amnesia is encouraged by a deafening silence on the matter in the domestic media.

No chance to forget

However, those wounded in the Beijing massacre and the families of those killed cannot forget, and their suffering continues to be sharpened by the lack of resolution the big lie creates. They are also embittered by the intimidation and persecution to which the authorities have subjected them-even if they wanted to move on, they are not

permitted to forget that the government does not wish the truth they are living to be known. They are watched and "visited" by the police, some have lost their jobs or been forced to retire, others have suffered discrimination, being blocked from taking up certain jobs or from promotion, for example. In at least one case, the authorities have labeled a bereaved family "political criminals."

But some of the victims refuse to give up and allow the official lies to stand unchallenged. These brave people, as well as dealing with bereavement or disability, have created a network which provides mutual support and collects information about what really happened in those terrible days at the beginning of June. This is an effort initiated in the early years after the massacre by Ding Zilin-the mother of Jiang Jielian, killed on June 3, aged 17-along with other mothers, family members and people across the country who wish the truth to be known.

The impact of the creation and work of this June Fourth victims' network in collecting evidence to document the reality of their individual stories goes far beyond their search for justice for themselves. As Ding Zilin explains in her essay on why she chose the gruesome task of "documenting death," the brutality which has scorched the victims' lives is part of a cycle of impunity which has allowed perpetrators of gross violations of human rights to go unpunished again and again in China.

Whether the final result is a trial or a reconciliatory "truth commission" type initiative, the first and indispensable step is to establish the facts-who died, who was wounded, where and in what specific circumstances. Thus far, the Chinese government has not only done nothing of this nature itself, it has done everything possible to silence and stop such efforts by ordinary Chinese citizens, including the victims of the June Fourth massacre.

Compiling the evidence

Over these last ten years, the June Fourth victims' network has painstakingly compiled a list of 155 dead and 65 wounded, containing names and other details of victims ranging in age from nine to 61. In the list of 155 killed, most entries also include information on the location and manner of the deaths of the victims.

In addition, this year the victims have taken the unprecedented step of preparing detailed testimonies, in which family members describe the circumstances of the deaths of 24 individuals, and three people who suffered permanent disability as a result of their injuries write of how they were wounded. Some of these testimonies are the result of long and difficult investigations by families of those who died into how they were killed. They also include information on the often despicable treatment to which the authorities have subjected these individuals and families, which even includes discrimination against the siblings of the dead.

Establishing who died and where is no easy matter. Many people just went missing, with bodies never located. While news of some such individuals from Beijing may be possible to find, there were a large number of people from out of town in the city at the time, and their disappearances could easily have gone unremarked. In at least one case, troops are known to have hastily buried bodies in a mass grave outside No.28 High School (they later had to be exhumed as the grave was too shallow and the bodies became exposed during heavy rain). Eyewitnesses say that troops also removed corpses from hospitals and took them for cremation without the involvement of their families.

In addition, families have been pressured to keep silent about how their loved ones died. In some cases, they were told that unless they agreed to the issuance of death certificates stating that the individual was killed in a car accident or some other falsehood, the victim could not be cremated, or would be classified as a "rioter," in which case the family would experience all kinds of problems. Some of those who have prepared testimonies refused to do this. A few years after the massacre, some families were pressured into removing victims' burial plots or funeral urns from public cemeteries to erase the public physical reminder of these crimes.

Overkill orders

The evidence presented here about individual deaths and injuries and about the behavior of the martial law troops indicates that at the very least hundreds were killed in the assault on the city, likely many more than the government admits.

Despite the constant broadcasting of ominous warnings on radio and television on June 3 saying that people should not go out or otherwise they would be "responsible for the consequences," many of the victims were out on the streets because they did not believe that the troops would use live ammunition, as some of the testimonies point out. This assumption was widely shared: knowing that the order had come down to enforce the leadership's command that the protesters be dispersed from the city, and that the weeks-long occupation of Tiananmen Square be ended, some hospitals had prepared eyedrops and gauze, assuming that they would be treating people suffering from tear gas inhalation and minor wounds, such as from beatings.

Before the martial law troops began rolling into the city, some in armored personnel carriers and tanks, and shooting at random into the crowds, the protests in Beijing-and those across the country, as well-had been remarkably peaceful and witnesses describe an unprecedented sense of order prevailing in the capital city during the movement. But the official line is that those who were shot were thugs and "rioters." Can most of the people described in the evidence presented here merely have been caught in the cross-fire?

The answer of this evidence is a resounding no. It is clear that the enforcement of martial law was a deliberate, planned action to instill fear in all of the city's residents and to employ lethal force to end the challenge to the regime which the protests represented, in the view of the leadership. A number of factors demonstrate this point.

First is the fact that the troops were permitted to use live ammunition. The authorities continue to insist that the reason live bullets were used was that the police did not have any anti-riot equipment or tear gas. But this is hardly a convincing argument: in 1976, protesters participating in the April Fifth Movement, who gathered in Tiananmen Square for days on end, were dispersed with clubs, reportedly with no loss of life. Furthermore, police in full riot gear were seen on several occasions during the course of the demonstrations before June 4. Tear gas and batons were used by some of the martial law forces, particularly some groups of PAP officers, during the crackdown-at least one victim on the list of 155 actually died from tear gas inhalation. Thus it is evident that the decision to use more extreme methods was a calculated official act.

The government's justifications were restated recently by Zhu Muzhi, president of the official China Society for Human Rights Studies and a former high ranking official, in an April talk to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing. While Zhu conceded that "innocent people" may have been killed by stray bullets in 1989, he said the troops were justified on firing on "thugs" who attacked the soldiers. Describing those who made demands for political reform as "flies and mosquitoes" who came in to China as a result of the "open door" policy, Zhu said that there would not have been so much fuss about getting rid of a few "flies" if the authorities had had access to the proper methods for doing so.

The second point is that the troops used weapons designed to cause severe injury, including machine guns mounted on tanks and armored cars, which carry much larger caliber ordnance than regular rifles. Machine guns of this type are designed for use in combat, not in crowd control. Some of the large wounds popularly thought to be due to "exploding bullets" were probably caused by such guns. Troops also used semi-automatic machine guns, designed to fire a large number of bullets quickly. Twelve individuals in the testimonies and the list received multiple gunshot wounds, attesting to the use of such weapons. If arguments such as those of Zhu Muzhi were correct, surely if the government had no tear gas, batons or water-cannon, they could have issued troops with small-caliber side arms for protection. In fact almost all police and PAP officers routinely carry such weapons.

Third, troops fired volleys of shots at random into crowds of people, as well as firing high into the air at buildings, particularly Building No.22 at Muxudi. Eyewitnesses describe troops in formation raking crowds with gunfire in a number of locations across the city, which indicates a well-disciplined, deliberate, sanctioned action.

Fourth, in all but a handful of cases, no warnings were issued before troops opened fire, and in no cases did eyewitnesses report such warnings prior to volleys fired at crowds. When the authorities are dealing with a serious civil disturbance, it should be a priority to minimize loss of life. If it is determined that there is no way of dealing with the situation but to open fire-and as mentioned above there are serious questions as to whether this was the case in Beijing in 1989-warnings should be issued over loud hailers or public address systems and then time should be given for crowds to disperse before the order to shoot is given. Even then, fire should be controlled and the minimum amount of force necessary to regain control should be employed.

Fifth, it would be normal practice for a responsible government which wished to ensure public safety in imposing a declared state of emergency by the use of force to notify hospitals in advance of their intentions so that they could prepare for casualties. But this apparently did not happen in Beijing. It seems that most hospitals were unprepared to deal with an influx of people suffering from life threatening wounds. Many people whose lives might have been saved died from loss of blood, or from lack of prompt medical attention.

In addition, some of the testimonies show that troops prevented people from evacuating the wounded, and a number of people were actually killed while attempting to aid those who had been shot. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, medical personnel were actively prevented from rescuing the injured. Some witnesses report that troops said they had orders to prevent the evacuation of the wounded. Medical teams may have been prevented from moving around the city to transport wounded to hospitals in ambulances. Most wounded were either carried by other citizens or transported on flatbed tricycles to the city's hospitals.

Atrocities by troops

In a number of documented cases, the martial law troops appear to have gone beyond even the already excessive levels of force authorized by their orders in their actions during this time. The following are some examples.

First, many victims were shot in the back, indicating that they were running away rather than posing any threat to the martial law troops. If the objective was to disperse the demonstrations, there is no excuse for this. Several witnesses report troops following fleeing individuals or groups into alleys and shooting them there.

Second, eight victims on the list were run over by tanks or armored personnel carriers. In a case which occurred early in the morning of June 4 at Liubukou, at least four people were crushed to death, and one, Fang Zheng, had both his legs run over. According to Fang's account, the vehicle approached the victims, who were marching in an orderly column on the sidewalk and in the bike lane, from behind, first fired tear gas at them (a clear indication that they had been seen ahead), and then ran over the whole group at speed. Such vehicles can normally stop quite quickly.

Third, a number of individual victims were murdered in acts of extreme savagery. One victim was found decapitated. In the case of Wu Guofeng, the state of his corpse appears to indicate that he was first stabbed in the belly with a bayonet, which he tried to prevent by defending himself with his hands, which were lacerated as a result, and then shot several times, including in the back of the head. Duan Changlong was shot in the chest by a pistol at close range when he attempted to mediate between troops and citizens, according to eyewitnesses.

Bring perpetrators to justice

Neither such brutality by individual soldiers nor the excessive violence sanctioned in the name of restoring "order" can be justified by the situation, and thus we believe that both categories constitute serious crimes under Chinese law, as well as clear violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The lawful declaration of states of emergency or martial law in China clearly does not permit the kind of indiscriminate killing and attacks on civilians which occurred.

We believe that the pattern of actions described in the testimonies constitute evidence that crimes against humanity were committed during those days in June. Thus Human Rights in China joins with the victims to demand that those who gave the orders as well as individual soldiers responsible for atrocities should be prosecuted.

The June Fourth victims have appealed to the government for justice again and again, writing to leaders, to the National People's Congress and making public appeals, but have received no response whatsoever, apart from more intimidation. Now they are taking this a step further, and are submitting the testimonies and the victims' list to China's public prosecution service, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, calling for it to further investigate these crimes and then bring prosecutions against those who ordered the massacre and carried it out. If they receive no response, they intend to pursue the matter outside the country with the ultimate aim of setting up an international tribunal of some kind to try these cases.

The struggle of these families and individuals to reveal the reality behind the massacre is not only about justice for the victims of June Fourth. It is also a vital part of the struggle for an accountable government in China which respects human rights and freedoms. This century's history has demonstrated time and again that the truth of major crimes by governments against their people will eventually be revealed, and that a lawful and just settling of accounts is inevitable. In this sense, the June Fourth victims have time on their side. But they will need the assistance of the international community in achieving an objective which is, after all, in the interests of a peaceful world in the next century.