China: Legacy of Tiananmen Denial Erodes Rule of Law

Impunity for June 1989 Massacre Impedes Needed Legal Reform
June 1, 2012

(New York) – The Chinese government’s failure to admit to the massacre of unarmed civilians in June 1989 continues to arrest the development of meaningful rule of law in China, Human Rights Watch said.

June 2012 marks the twenty-third year of the Chinese government’s ongoing cover-up of the Tiananmen massacre and persecution of survivors, victims’ relatives, and those who challenge the government’s narrative about those abuses.

“It’s been more than three decades since the beginning of the ‘reform and opening’ era in China, yet the government has displayed little interest in reforming or opening when it comes to the protests and bloodshed from 1989,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But demands inside China for meaningful legal reform and accountability are only increasing despite government resistance.”

The April 22, 2012, escape of blind legal rights defender Chen Guangcheng from 19 months of unlawful detention in Shandong province and his subsequent temporary relocation to the United States last month highlights official abuse of the legal system to persecute those seeking redress for human rights abuses. During those 19 months, Chen and his family – including his wife, Yuan Weijing, and his elderly mother – were targeted with physical violence by local government officials and security forces and denied their constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of movement, expression, and association.

Despite Chinese government assurances that officials would investigate those abuses, some of Chen’s relatives in Shandong have been targeted with what Chen describes as “intense pressure” and intimidation tactics from local government officials. Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, faces charges of attempted murder as the result of what Chen has described as an act of self defense against thugs wielding pickaxe handles who allegedly broke into his brother’s home on April 27, 2012.

“Chinese authorities repeatedly described Chen as ‘a free man’ and ‘a normal citizen’ at the same time local officials grossly abused him and his family,” said Richardson. “Such willful suppression of the truth is disturbingly consistent with the government’s attitude towards June 4.”

The Tiananmen massacre was precipitated by the mass gathering of workers, students, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other cities in April 1989 to peacefully demonstrate for a pluralistic political system. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law and authorizing the military to use deadly force.

In response, units of the Chinese military shot and killed untold numbers of unarmed civilians, many of whom were not connected to the protests in Beijing and other cities on and around June 3 and 4. Some people in Beijing attacked army convoys and burned vehicles as the military moved through the city. The Tiananmen Mothers, a nongovernmental grouping of relatives of Tiananmen massacre victims, has compiled a list of at least 203 citizens killed in the June 1989 crackdown. The 1989 crackdown extended to major urban centers across China and included the arrest of thousands of people on “counter-revolutionary” charges and on criminal charges including disrupting social order and arson.

The Chinese government has refused to account for those killings or bring the perpetrators to justice. The Chinese Communist Party initially justified the bloody crackdown as a valid response to a “counter-revolutionary incident,” later revising its assessment of the incident as a “political disturbance.” The Chinese government has steadfastly refused to issue a list of those killed, “disappeared,” or imprisoned, and has failed to publish verifiable casualty figures. The government has also consistently stifled any public discussion of the June 1989 massacre and its aftermath.

The government’s refusal to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the violent suppression of the June 4 protest movement – much less tolerate public debate on these events – finds reflection in many serious and ongoing human rights violations today, including:

“The Tiananmen Mothers, the family of Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, and countless individuals across China continue to be persecuted for simply asking the government to uphold its own legal commitments,” said Richardson. “The government’s credibility doesn’t just depend on delivering economic reform or international security commitments – it depends on its willingness to answer to its people about some of its own worst mistakes.”