Thirty-two years ago, hardliners in the Communist Party of China made the cold-blooded decision to crush citizens’ voices and mobilize the People’s Liberation Army against the Chinese people, killing and maiming unarmed, peaceful protestors demanding the fundamental conditions for a healthy society: a clean government and political liberalization. Protestors and bystanders alike were shot in the head, chest, back; chased into alleys and stabbed; and crushed under tanks by soldiers obeying orders from the higher-ups.
During the crackdown, a passerby saw an angry crowd carrying on a broken plank the bullet-riddled, lifeless body of a nine-year-old boy, Lü Peng—the youngest known June Fourth victim, to date. He later described what he witnessed and felt in a 2004 essay (collected in HRIC’s “Unforgotten” project):
The sun shone mercilessly on his little face, pale and wretched, and that perplexed look on his small face felt to me like a colossal indictment. When those people carried him, it seemed they were carrying a hope that was shot dead, and that dashed hope was giving way to boundless despair. . . . I didn’t know what the meaning of life is if there is no dignity? . . . The people cried, and then they voiced their anger. I cried, but was no longer able to feel anger. I kept thinking: when those bullets hit him, what was it exactly that struck at the chest of a people, and what was it exactly that struck at the heart of Chinese history?
Enforced amnesia and ongoing impunity
In the decades since, China’s authoritarian regime has used another kind of force—enforced amnesia—in its attempts to bury the truth of the brutal crimes it committed against its people. Those who lived through the massacre have been forbidden to ask questions, and the young have been made ignorant of the historical trauma. The families of victims have been vilified—not even allowed to publicly mourn their loved ones. The government has ignored those who have persisted in pressing for truth and accountability, such as the Tiananmen Mothers, and been waiting until death silences them.
Condemnations by foreign governments of the atrocities soon receded as governments and companies, eager for lucrative business and trade opportunities and China’s cheap labor, acquiesced in the Chinese model of development: state-led double-digit economic growth underwritten by environmental and human costs, including “stability” achieved through suppression and the wielding of absolute political power by one party.
Emboldened by impunity, the Chinese government continued its repression of the people in Tibet, and drastically escalated its securitized social “management” practices in Xinjiang in recent years against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. In Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities have ripped apart families, interned an estimated 1 to 2 million, forced sterilization of women, and attempted to erase ethnic, cultural, and religious practices—all part of a grand enterprise to remake the people into obedient, loyal, ideologically “correct,” and unquestioning citizens under the CPC led by President Xi Jinping.
Beijing’s iron fist comes down on Hong Kong
In mid-2020, the Chinese government extended its iron fist to Hong Kong, with a national security law in June and ensuing policies that flout China’s international obligations of governing Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” principle, and trample on the rights of the Hong Kong people.
In the year since the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, arrests of scores of pro-democracy activists, including eminent barristers and many former lawmakers, have chilled, criminalized, and punished the exercise of fundamental rights and citizen participation; an expanding national security apparatus and a rash of policies and edicts have steeply eroded freedom of expression and freedom of the press; new educational guidelines have been put in place to instill students’ loyalty to the mainland government and curb their thinking critically and independently; and an electoral overhaul have eviscerated all political opposition.
And this year, for the 2nd year in a row, the police have banned the annual June 4 candlelight vigil in Victoria Park that had attracted large crowds of Hong Kongers since 1990, exceeding 100,000 in some years. In lock step with the total ban of any public commemoration of June Fourth victims and censorship of the topic in mainland China, the Hong Kong police have made remembrance a crime by threatening potential attendees with a jail sentence up to five years.
Standing up at this historical juncture
Today, 32 years after the Tiananmen massacre, the world is standing at a very different moment of history.
“The convergence of the widespread exposure of the mass detention camps in Xinjiang, the brazen destruction through law of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the stonewalling of an international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus—is finally shifting the geopolitical tectonic plates,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “The challenge for the international community is how to effectively leverage the lessons from these human rights crises.”
As the horrors in Xinjiang come clearer into view and the deadly consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt worldwide, there are some indications of principled push-back against the blatant lies and alternative history that Chinese media inside and outside China attempt to hawk, as well as backlash against Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The European Parliament’s overwhelming vote to “freeze” the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) (signed by EU and China in December 2020), signals willingness to take a principled stand against China’s retaliatory sanctions on EU entities and individuals for criticizing China over the Xinjiang issue.
“What we may be witnessing is the fracturing of the appearance of power, influence, and invincibility that Beijing projects through its official narrative and vast propaganda campaigns. But whether the CPC authoritarian center can hold will depend on its handling of the demographic crisis it created—and sustained international community support for defenders demanding accountability for past and ongoing human rights abuses,” said Hom.
As Beijing mounts an all-out domestic campaign to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding, the 32nd anniversary of June Fourth is a critical opportunity for the international community to support the demands of the Tiananmen Mothers for truth, accountability, and justice for the victims and survivors of June Fourth.
To all those who care about justice, we urge you to use your freedom to voice your solidarity with the Tiananmen Mothers, with Hong Kongers prosecuted and sentenced for commemorating the victims of June Fourth, and with all the victims of the CPC regime’s violence. Light a candle at 8 p.m. on June 4, write a message to the Tiananmen Mothers (via our special website), and document your own gesture of solidarity and send them to us at email@example.com for posting on our website.