02 June, 2009

Remembering Tiananmen Square massacre, 20 years on !

The massacre in Beijing, 20 years ago, is officially a non-event but in reality it was a crucial moment in China's history.

What happened that night is a non-event as far as the rulers of China are concerned; commemoration is suppressed and, if it is remembered at all, the occasion is portrayed as a glorious defence of the people's true interests by the army. How many people died remains unknown, though what is clear is that most were not students in Tiananmen, but ordinary citizens of the capital trying to stop the armoured vehicles after previous successes at blocking their progress to the square.

The student demonstrators in the square may have lacked a coherent message. The atmosphere may have taken on aspects of a carnival. But, underlying it all, was a basic questioning of the right of the Communist Party to exercise monopoly power, a demand for discussion and plurality.

Twenty years ago tanks rolled into Beijing's Tiananmen Square to crush the biggest pro-democracy movement in history. Hundreds were killed, thousands jailed and many fled to escape persecution. Here exiled leaders of the student revolution tell their remarkable stories and reveal how, after being forced to build new lives, they remain haunted by its bloody legacy.

Over seven tumultuous weeks of nationwide demonstrations and protests, beginning with the death of the sacked reformer, Hu Yaobang, on 15 April 1989 and ending with the movement's violent suppression on 4 June, an estimated 100 million people across China demonstrated in support of political reform. The movement was inchoate, contradictory and politically confused but it remains the biggest peaceful pro-democracy movement in human history. For the millions who took part, life would never be the same again.

It's been two decades since that lone protester defied a column of tanks on Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace, before vanishing, never to be identified. Since that time, China has prospered economically. The party has embraced the market and traded the socialist system it claimed to defend for the pleasures of getting rich. Younger generations are vague about a movement that still cannot be publicly discussed or documented. But the suppression at Tiananmen continues to exact a high price: the constant falsification of history, a political system frozen by the fear of the people's judgment, and a leadership that sees the ghosts of Tiananmen wherever voices call for political reform.

The secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party leader ousted for opposing the military crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square, exploded into the open yesterday, four years after his death.

Dictated during his years of house arrest and smuggled out on cassettes disguised as children's music or Peking opera, the book will be pored over for clues about the workings of the secretive group of men who make up the inner core of China's Communist Party. The decisions made in Beijing's Zhongnanhai compound have global impact as China is an emerging superpower, but little is known about how it functions. Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang may change all that.

As the tanks rolled into central Beijing on 3 June Mr Zhao writes: "While sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."

The current Chinese leadership says the crackdown was a "disturbance" by "hooligans" and says crushing the revolt was essential to ensure a stable foundation for the country's economic growth. Mr Zhao takes the opposite view. "I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system," he wrote.

Prisoner of State: Extracts from the book

On the 17 May meeting "I walked out as soon as the meeting adjourned. At that moment, I was extremely upset. I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on students."

On the Tiananmen crackdown "On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all... First, it was determined then that the student movement was a planned conspiracy of anti-Party, anti-socialist elements with leadership. So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this? Second, it was said that this event was aimed at overthrowing the People's Republic and the Communist Party. Where is the evidence? I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system."

On democracy "It would be wrong if our Party never makes the transition from a state that was suitable in a time of war to a state more suitable to a democracy society... The ruling Party must achieve two breakthroughs. One is to allow other political parties and a free press to exist. The second... is, the Party needs to adopt democratic procedures and use democratic means to reform itself... Different opinions must be allowed to exist, and different factions should be made legitimate."

The last word "Whether the Communist Party persists should be determined by the consequences of society's political openness and the competition between the Communist Party and other political powers (...) The trend is irrefutable, that the fittest will survive."

The Tiananmen Legacy

Human Rights Watch Recommendations

To the Chinese Government:

* The Chinese government should issue an immediate amnesty for those still imprisoned on charges related to the events of June 1989 and launch an independent review of their cases to determine possible miscarriages of justice in terms of violations of due legal process. The government should absolve and compensate those individuals determined to have been unfairly or illegally imprisoned.

* The Chinese government should immediately permit the unimpeded return of Chinese citizens exiled due to their connections to the events of June 1989.

* The Chinese government should respect and enforce citizens' rights to freedom of speech and expression and cease the detention and harassment of individuals who challenge the official account of the events of June 1989.

* The Chinese government should permit an independent inquiry into the events of June 1989. Such an inquiry should be open to the public, allow the participation of victims' families, including the Tiananmen Mothers, and the substance of its proceedings and conclusions should be made public in a complete and timely manner. Such an inquiry is obviously impossible until the government stops harassing and silencing the victims of the events of June 1989 and takes substantive steps to preserve the historical record of what transpired at that time. When these prerequisites have been met, the Chinese government should issue and uphold explicit public guarantees that participants will not be subject to official reprisals.

* The Chinese government should initiate a mechanism for victims of the violence of June 1989 and/or their family members to claim official compensation for their losses.

* The Chinese government should launch criminal proceedings against any government and military officials who gave the orders for and/or participated in the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians in Beijing and other major cities in June 1989.

* The government should amend its recently released National Action Plan for Human Rights to include specific references which stipulate respect for the rights of the victims of June 1989 and their families.

To the International Community

* The European Union should resist calls to lift its arms embargo until the Chinese government completes an independent public investigation of the crackdown and holds accountable those government and military officials responsible for the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians. In addition, the EU should insist on a general amnesty for all those jailed for all forms of peaceful protest in China. Those convictions should be reviewed and overturned if there were procedural safeguards or lack of evidence of serious criminal acts.

* Governments, particularly those that have bilateral human rights dialogues with the Chinese government, should make their concerns about the 1989 crackdown and its legacy a touchstone of its engagement with the Chinese government on human rights, and establish measurable benchmarks and timelines for the Chinese government to address the rights abuses, past and present, connected to the events of 1989.

* Foreign governments should urge China to amend its recently released National Action Plan for Human Rights to include specific references which stipulate respect for the rights of the victims of June 1989 and their families and actionable targets and deadlines to ensure those rights are respected.

* Foreign governments should publicly observe the 20th anniversary of the events of June 1989 by opening their embassies in Beijing to the general public on June 3-4, 2009, as safe zones where Chinese citizens could access uncensored information about the events of June 1989, and engage in discussions about those events and their legacy.

* Those countries with bilateral human rights dialogues with China should make these recommendations a key component of their human rights engagement with China in 2009.

Member states of the Berne Process for human rights engagement with China should reconvene on or around June 3-4 to discuss means to adopt and implement these recommendations.

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