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20 years after Tiananmen, government still stifling debate

Liu Xiaobo
Liu Xiaobo

Tomorrow (4 June) marks the 20-year anniversary of the massacre of unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square, but in China, the day is expected to pass like any other.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Freedom House and Human Rights Watch (HRW) are condemning China's sweeping Internet censorship and crackdowns on free speech that makes it extremely difficult - and dangerous - for Chinese people to commemorate the victims.

Using what Freedom House calls "the most sophisticated internet surveillance and censorship apparatus," photos, videos and the majority of articles depicting or referencing the event are banned, and activists who speak or write about the 1989 atrocities face imprisonment or house arrest. As a result, most young Chinese are completely unaware of the killings that shocked the world, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

According to an RSF report, a video or photo search of "4 June" in China's most popular search engine, Baidu, either returns no results or the message, "Sorry, no video corresponds to your search." An article search, meanwhile, elicits only official government statements on the events. In addition,, the only version of the search engine accessible in China, has blocked videos, texts and photos that reveal the truth about the massacre, RSF says.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), numerous other sites, including Wikipedia, YouTube and Flickr are inaccessible to more than one billion people. Twitter, on account of its relative infancy, remained a bastion for free discussion on the Tiananamen violence up until June 2, when it was blocked by the Chinese government, CPJ reports.

In April 1989, workers, students, journalists and activists began to gather in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy and a free press. With the demonstrations growing in number and continuing into late May, the government declared martial law, authorising the army to use deadly force against unarmed protestors. On June 3 and 4, the army opened fire on civilians who were trying to block tanks from accessing the main site of protests at Tiananmen. Hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands, were killed. (The Chinese Communist Party refuses to verify casualty figures or compile an official list of those slain.) In the following weeks and months, the government arrested thousands of people on "counter-revolutionary" charges. Several people remain imprisoned for their involvement in the 1989 demonstrations.

Over the past 20 years, journalists who have written about the event have been fired and imprisoned while many other activists have been threatened and detained for talking about the 4 June events. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), the Public Security Bureau has recently been contacting or visiting dissidents across the country, including political activist Zhang Zuhua and blogger Zan Aizong, warning them not to write articles, give interviews or organise demonstrations linked to the anniversary.

In May, Human Rights Watch released "The Tiananmen Legacy," a multimedia feature examining the impact of Tiananmen 20 years on. On June 1, CHRD released its own report to commemorate the anniversary of Tiananmen, titled "The Legacy of Tiananmen: 20 Years of Oppression, Activism and Hope."

The following people were recently detained or threatened for sharing opinions on the Tiananmen massacre:

- Shi Tao, a journalist who sent an email about the Tiananmen Square anniversary in 2004, is currently serving a 10-year sentence.
- Liu Xiaobo, an organiser of the 1989 movement who spent the 1990s in and out of jail and labour camps, was rearrested in late 2008 for disseminating a public petition calling for democracy and rule of law.
- Huang Qi, a long-time campaigner for public recognition of the June 1989 victims, has been held
without trial since June 2008 and is now seriously ill, according to RSF. In 2000, he was arrested for hosting an online discussion about Tiananmen Square and served five years in prison as a result.
- Zhang Shijun, a former soldier who has publicly expressed regret over his involvement in the 4 June tragedy, was detained in March after publishing an open letter to President Hu Jintao, urging the party to reconsider its condemnation of the June 1989 demonstrations. He is currently being held by security forces in an unknown location.
- Jiang Qisheng, Chinese PEN Center Vice President and author of a recent, widely cited report on Tiananmen Square, was interrogated, and had his home searched and documents and computers confiscated in March and May of this year.
- Zhang Xianling is a founding member of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of mothers and relatives intent on keeping the memory of their loved ones killed in June 1989 alive. In May, two days ahead of a memorial ceremony, she was warned not to invite media to participate in or report on the ceremony.
- Ding Zilin, another founder of Tiananmen Mothers, was ordered not to participate in the May 17 memorial ceremony and she and her husband were followed by plain clothes officers to ensure their compliance.

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