Amid suppression and censorship by Beijing, Tiananmen massacre victims await justice

Tiananmen in Chinese means “Gate of Heavenly Peace”. But what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 negates the very meaning of the word. Around 10,000 Chinese people were killed by its own government for seeking democratic rights. Thousands of other peaceful demonstrators were injured, later hunted down and jailed. The issue is still a taboo in China. The victims of the 1989 massacre are still waiting to get justice as accountability for the tragedy was never fixed. Even the families of the victims seeking to commemorate the occasion are harassed by the Chinese authorities.

Chinese authorities detained, questioned, and arrested the families of the victims and social activists who were planning to mark the Tiananmen tragedy anniversary. Such suppression tactics have seen a surge since Xi Jinping took the reins of China in 2013. Every year, families especially mothers of those killed in the brutal military action in Tiananmen Square gather to seek justice for their deceased loved ones and to explain the “state-led terror and suffocation” they go through for seeking justice. Yin Min, whose 19-year old son was killed in the 1989 massacre, said “It feels that there’s no end in sight. We are all at ages where death can happen any day, and we’d like to see the truth revealed and justice upheld while we are still alive.

Families and activists were kept under surveillance on the 30th anniversary in 2019. Chinese rights activist Hu Jia said the state security police followed her everywhere, even during a trek to remote mountains. Families of the victims were followed and their telephones were monitored in order to prevent them from marking the anniversary or speaking to journalists. The members of a group named ‘Tiananmen Mothers’ were placed under house arrest in the run-up to the 1989 movement’s anniversary. Zhang Xianling, who lost her son in the Tiananmen crackdown, said “I asked them what date they would be leaving on, and they said they didn’t know… Human rights violations are so common in China.” When Zhang’s son asked her if the army would open fire, she did not believe it and said no to him. Three hours later he was killed.

As many as 131 ‘Tiananmen Mothers’ published a letter in 2016 recounting their horrible ordeal while seeking justice. They said they were subjected to constant harassment, intimidation, and even false accusations by the Chinese security agencies. “For us, family members of the victims’ families, it has been 27 years of state terror and suffocation. All these actions undoubtedly desecrate the souls of those who perished in the crackdown and insult the honour of the living,” read the letter.

Arrests, censorships, surveillance are part of Jinping’s “China Dream” that wants everyone to forget about the Tiananmen killings, said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But suppressing the truth has only fuelled demands for justice and accountability,” she said. Until two years ago, the people of Hong Kong would freely commemorate the Tiananmen tragedy. Hundreds of Hong Kongers held protests demanding vindication, accountability and justice for victims of the 1989 massacre. However, the Beijing government cracked down on the protestors in 2019.

It started witch-hunts of those who participated in the Hong Kong rallies commemorating the Tiananmen killings. Eight activists were sentenced to up to 14 months in jail. This however urged more Hong Kongers to fight for the Tiananmen case. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai said “If commemorating those who died because of injustice is a crime, then inflict on me that crime and let me suffer the punishment of this crime.” After awarding 14 months in prison, activist Lee Cheuk-yan told the court “If there was a provocateur, it is the regime that fired at its own people. If I must go to jail to affirm my will, then so be it.”

Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, said the Beijing government never paid a price at home or abroad for the Tiananmen Massacre, which emboldened state-sponsored abuses in the country. The families of the 1989 tragedy blamed the Beijing government for ignoring their appeal seeking a resolution to the “miscarriage of justice”. They said the government pretended that the Tiananmen genocide never happened. Coming heavily on the communist government for the “unscrupulous slaughter” of its own citizens, the ‘Tiananmen Mothers’ said “A government that forgets, conceals, and covers up the truth of historical suffering has no future—it is a government that is continuing to commit crimes!”