As the world marks the 30thAnniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on the 4thof June, international leaders remain steadfast in their demands for the Chinese government to publicly acknowledge the lives lost during the violent 1989 Beijing suppression. Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement condemning the systemic censorship, governmental silence, and continued human rights aberrations committed by the Chinese Communist Party; “We call on China to release all those held for seeking to exercise these rights and freedoms, halt the use of arbitrary detention, and reverse counterproductive policies that conflate terrorism with religious and political expression”.
Only months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the 6-week protests, which consisted of hunger strikes and a collective action of students, police officers, workers and even some members of the armed forces escalated to a point of potential political change, urging the conservative Chinese government to democratize. Despite government attempts to defame and discourage protesters by naming them as ‘anti-revolutionaries’ and ‘anti-party’, the student-led pro-democracy protests were steadfast in their demands. By June 4th the intensity of the mass demonstrations had reached a critical point, at its height involving approximately 1 million protesters. Under hard-line orders from Deng Xiaoping, the regime ordered a military crackdown and to “clear the square by 6 am by any means necessary”. What followed was a merciless purging of peaceful student protesters using military force, fire arms, and tanks. Following the suppression, the Chinese Red Cross announced 2600 people had died. However, the Chinese government rapidly retracted the figure and counterclaimed that only 240 people had died, 23 of which were soldiers, with 7000 injured. Although the Chinese government has never released a death toll and has since systematically censored any mention of Tiananmen from their public history, the solidarity of the students and bravery of figures such as ‘Tank Man’ have remained a universal icon of peaceful resistance.
As the Chinese government has continued its legacy of economic liberalization and political conservatism, the historical and continued disregard for human rights remains a source of conflict between China and many democratic countries. As articulated by Pompeo, the US and many of its Western allies had hoped that China’s economic development and integration as a formidable world power would encourage greater openness and social tolerance. However, with recent human rights abuses, including the methodical targeting of Muslims in Xinjiang, hopes that the Communist Party’s economic integration will uphold the peaceful exercising of human rights and freedoms have been been met with great disappointment.
China’s commitment to retaining its conservative Communist government through tight control of its citizenry remains steadfast. In the Party’s response to Pompeo, a Chinese embassy spokesman stated the claims were “an affront to the Chinese people”, filled with prejudice and arrogance, a sentiment repeated in response to State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus claiming that the event was a “full-on massacre of peaceful protestors”. In a rare mentioning of the events, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe defended the crackdown, citing it as a correct decision with the positive effect of maintaining China’s stability and affluence ever since; a vaccination for future political dissent.
Despite China’s intensification of its routine censorship around the June 4thAnniversary, alongside its refusal to hold any official acts of remembrance for the Tiananmen Square protests, vigils are still held in semi-autonomous regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taipei, an inflatable ‘Tank Man’ has been assembled to respect the bravery of protesters, with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council claiming this to be a symbolic demand for China to “face up to historical mistakes”.
As China continues to exercise political suppression, social intolerance and tight control on the freedoms of its citizens, it is evident that economic progress alone is insufficient to instigate democratic change. Nevertheless, democratic powers around the world remain uncompromising in their insistence for the People’s Republic of China to publicly admit the horror of Tiananmen. Although the regime’s pervasive censorship and increased affluence have resulted in the absence of any memory of Tiananmen amongst the new generation of young Chinese, the atrocity of Tiananmen continues to provoke the world’s conscience and demands for freedom.