Another Tiananmen Anniversary: Will There Be A Reckoning?

This Saturday, June 4, 2011, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of pro-democracy activists were killed, injured or imprisoned by Chinese authorities.  This year’s Tiananmen anniversary comes at a time of greatly increased political repression in China.  According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “Chinese authorities have launched a broad crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers in what international observers have described as one of the harshest crackdowns in years."

Over the last several months, activist groups such as Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) have repeatedly tried to draw attention to this harsh renewal of repression in China. In an article entitled “Missing before Action” in the March issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, a CHRD writer noted that hundreds of Chinese human rights activists, lawyers, and pro-democracy dissidents from across the country have been affected by the crackdown. Police have used “violence, arbitrary detention, "disappearances," and other forms of harassment and intimidation” to put a damper on any nascent protest movement.  Other dissidents --or non-dissident citizens walking the streets -- have been picked up for questioning.

Although authorities  began tightening the political screws in the period leading up to  the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it appears that the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East have given added impetus to this policy.

For example, as the Egyptian protests reached their peak in January and February of 2011, anonymous internet appeals for a "Jasmine Revolution" began appearing in China.  Calling the calls for protest “socially destabilizing”, authorities moved “quickly and with force” at that time to discourage any outbreak of dissent. The moves included attempts to shut down popular social networking sites, and to block searches containing the word “jasmine."

The Chinese actions have largely escaped international attention at a time when all eyes have been focused on the “Arab Spring” democratic uprisings.  Democratic activists in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria are reeling from the violent, bloody reaction of authoritarian regimes to their protests.  Noting that the U.N. is investigating allegations of human rights violations in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, the CHRD has called for the United Nations “to launch an inquiry into the current crackdown on human rights and pro-democracy activists in China and demand that the Chinese government take concrete measures to address past and ongoing human rights abuses."

The attempt to keep the spotlight on China is not limited to human rights activists. On May 31, the families of those killed at Tiananmen Square, speaking through the organization of “Tiananmen Mothers”, published a signed essay in memory of the slain. In that essay, aimed directly at the Standing Committee of the National Peoples’ Congress and published by Human Rights in China, the Tiananmen Mothers reiterated their long-standing requests for justice for their sons and daughters. They also urged the regime to lift continuing surveillance and harassment of the families of Tiananmen victims and to allow them “to mourn without interference." They called for some gesture of “good faith” by the government on these and other issues. Noting that the Massacre was “by no means a casual act, but an act with the highest level decision makers," the Tiananmen Mothers warned, in the words of an old Chinese saying:  “There is no avoiding the sins committed by the heavens, nor can man escape from paying for the sins he commits."

In light of the swift, ongoing, and vicious campaign of repression they have  unleashed  in this season of widespread rebellion and discontent, it seems clear that nervous Chinese  authorities are determined to avoid that reckoning with justice that the persistent and I think, implacable, Mothers of Tiananmen, are determined to lay at their feet.

- Randall Garton