On June 4, Chin and his husband solemnly marked the anniversary of one of the most significant protests of the 20th century — the 25th anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square and the bloody government assault that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed citizens.
Chin observed the anniversary during a candlelight vigil in Golden Gate Park organized by an LGBT Asian-Pacific Islanders group. Similar remembrances took place June 3–4 around the world, with the exception of in China.
“We remember, people all over the world remembered, but China is seeing to it that people there forget,” said the gay student activist. “We know the history of Stonewall. Twenty-five years later, we still don’t know the whole truth of what happened in Tiananmen Square.”
For Chin, the 33-foot-tall Goddess of Democracy that demonstrators built in Tiananmen Square is as important a symbol of freedom as the rainbow Pride flag. “I hope that someday it can be rebuilt again in Tiananmen Square,” Chin said. The statue, which was made of foam, plaster, papier-mâché and metal, drew people to the square for those days in early June in Beijing.
China has never issued a full accounting of what happened, but journalists have estimated that as many as a million people, including about 100,000 students, were engaged in the pro-democracy, anti-corruption demonstrations that spring in Beijing. They were seeking reform, calling for changes to the authoritarian regime.
On May 20, 1989, the government imposed martial law.
On June 3–4, tanks and armored personnel carriers reached Tiananmen Square, followed by tens of thousands of troops armed with automatic weapons that were used on unarmed marchers and onlookers. Reports put the number of people killed at somewhere between 200 and 2,600.
The incident of the lone man standing in the path of the column of tanks occurred the day after the crackdown, the day the square still was being cleared of the wounded and their bicycles. The identity of the Tank Man is not known, though there has been speculation. His fate also is not known — some say he was detained and later executed, but others maintain he went on to live a quiet life in China.
Today, a relaxation of some restrictions on basic rights has coincided with rapid socio-economic change in China. But the government remains “an authoritarian one-party state. It places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; and maintains party control over all judicial institutions,” according to the watchdog group Human Rights Watch.
The government censors the press, the Internet and academic research and justifies human rights abuses as necessary to preserve “social stability,” said Ken Roth, executive director of HRW. Populations are involuntarily relocated and rehoused on a massive scale, and repressive policies are carried out against ethnic minorities in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Protests do take place in China — HRW estimates as many as 300–500 protests occur each day.
But no protests have reached the scale or captured the attention of the rest of the world as the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. That’s in large part due to government crackdowns — human rights activists in the country often face imprisonment, detention, torture, intimidation, house arrest and commitment to psychiatric institutes.
Amnesty International reported that in advance of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China detained at least 60 people in an effort to suppress any commemoration of the victims of the June 3–4 assault. Among the detainees was a student activist in 1989 and a former political aide to the late Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who opposed the government crackdown in Tiananmen.
According to Amnesty, 18 activists were criminally detained, 20 activists were placed under house arrest, 10 activists were forced to relocate, another 10 activists were missing but believed to be detained and 12 were questioned by police.
Chinese authorities “have gone further when compared to past years, including the 20th anniversary, with more people criminally detained,” said William Nee, AI’s China researcher. But, Nee said, “Authorities’ suffocating grip on freedom of expression will not stop people in China and around the world from remembering the victims.”
Amnesty, like many other human rights groups, has called on the Chinese government to publicly acknowledge the human rights violations that occurred in the Tiananmen crackdown, to launch an independent inquiry into what took place in the square, to compensate the families of the victims and to cease harassment and persecution of those seeking to commemorate or speak out about the protests.
The White House, on June 4, also called on the Chinese government to account for those killed, detained or reported missing 25 years ago.
Press secretary Jay Carney, in a statement, said the United States urges the Chinese government to guarantee “universal rights and fundamental freedoms” to all its citizens and “will always speak out in support of the basic freedoms the protesters at Tiananmen Square sought.”