A recent conference at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation convened by Dr. Yang Jianli and the group Initiatives for China explored the consequences of those events in June twenty-six years ago. Dr. Yang was himself once a young rising star in the CCP who had become disillusioned early in his career. He moved to Berkeley, California, where he was living when the student protests in Beijing first broke out. After seeing the bloody scenes from the protests on the news, Dr. Yang flew back to Beijing to take part in person. In this VOC Witness video, Dr. Yang describes the chilling moment when the first policemen opened fire on the protestors, killing students standing “just a few feet away from me.”
Last Thursday marked twenty-six years since the fateful evening in Beijing when peaceful student protestors became martyrs for democracy. After the death of the reformist Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, protestors invoked his memory in calling for greater press freedom, workers’ rights, and effective anti-corruption measures within the Party. Many gathered in the square in 1989 were not calling for the dissolution of the Chinese Communist Party—they wanted to save it from itself. They were committed communist youth, college-aged Party leaders like Henry Li, who believed in the goals and principles of the People’s Republic of China.
But all that would change in an instant.
When People’s Liberation Army troops, following orders from top-level Party officials, opened fire on the protestors, they killed all goodwill and legitimacy that Chinese people may have felt towards their communist government. When tanks rolled through the square, they crushed any hopes of a stable future for China that included the Chinese Communist Party. In one night, card-carrying members of the CCP became enemies of the state and the organization in charge of the world’s most populous country became a butcher of its own people. The consequences of this shift were profound and are continuing to be worked out even today.
It is the still-vivid memory of these acts of brutality that continues to motivate Dr. Yang and other activists to demand justice all these years later. The conference hosted a number of human rights leaders from China and America who discussed the possible historical, political, and cultural responses to the Tiananmen Massacre. In the course of several learned and impassioned presentations, panelists and discussants agreed on the need for an accurate historical memory regarding the events at Tiananmen. This task is so central because of the widespread disinformation and propaganda that persists in China, much of it flowing directly from the Chinese government. Although searching the internet for information about the massacre quickly leads nowhere in China, most Chinese believe that students were responsible for initiating violence in June 1989. But as Dr. Yang says in his video testimony, “no single civilian or student was armed.” Thus the first task facing those who want to address the crimes of 1989 is to clarify who exactly is responsible.
Conference participants also focused on the failures of international policy towards China in the wake of Tiananmen Square. Encouraged by the prospect of a massive burgeoning economy and cheap labor, Western countries led by the United States failed to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations. In the years following the massacre, President Clinton’s administration moved to decouple human rights and trade in dealings with China, a policy that has continued through successive administrations. And it is not just the Tiananmen massacre that stands in the way of improved relations—human rights abuses continue on through to the current day in China, with Uighurs, migrants, Tibetans, political dissidents, low-income workers, and women all facing various forms of systematic abuse and even persecution from the Chinese Communist Party. One conference speaker, a small business owner from Jilin province, told how her store was forcibly closed and demolished by local government authorities who were closely tied to a larger company that served as her competitor. Another speaker, an activist from Beijing, recalled how her whole village was seized by heavily armed policemen and demolished—the government called it “return of property.” These sorts of abuses call out for justice, yet American political and diplomatic policymakers remain largely silent, or at least they compartmentalize human rights so that it isn’t allowed to interfere with trade or defense issues. The consensus among the group at the conference—a group that speaks with a certain moral authority as survivors of and witnesses to the massacre—was that this compartmentalization is counterproductive and immoral.
The conference was an opportunity to discuss a topic so central to the political and social development of China yet one that, in China, is still taboo. Many participants remarked how grateful they were just for being able to meet. In China, even small gatherings in a private home to mark the anniversary of June 4 are considered illegal and seditious acts. Let no one be fooled, then, about the true nature of the regime in Beijing: It sees any recourse to truth-telling, any insistence on an accurate record of history, any demand for justice, as fundamental threats to its hold on power. As long as the Chinese Communist Party sits atop the political, legal, and social structure of Chinese society, the Chinese people will continue to suffer, and lies about the Tiananmen massacre will continue to pass as truth.
But a country cannot be sustained on a lie—the truth will out. It is up to the brave activists working in and outside of China to ensure that day of reckoning comes soon.