In this picture taken on April 8, a Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Thirty years after the crackdown on Tiananmen protesters, the tanks that lined Beijing's central avenue have been replaced by countless surveillance cameras perched like hawks on lampposts to keep the population in check. (AFP photo)
Thirty years ago today, China’s Communist Party regime revealed, yet again, its true character when it turned its guns on the people and sent in its tanks to crush peaceful pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
The People’s Liberation Army turned out to be neither on the side of the people nor for liberation as it slaughtered thousands who were simply seeking freedom. “We didn’t commit any crimes,” says Bob Fu, an exiled dissident and president of China Aid, who had joined the protests but left the square three days before the massacre. “We were just holding a peaceful protest.”
Three decades later, China, under President Xi Jinping, is undergoing the worst crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen massacre. Hopes that China would gradually liberalize politically as it opened up economically have been dashed. And the crackdown is on every form of freedom, from expression to religious belief, and in every corner of China’s territory, from Xinjiang to Hong Kong, and has taken on an unprecedented extraterritorial aggression, resulting in critics abroad being harassed, intimidated, threatened and, in the worst cases, kidnapped.
Furthermore, the Chinese regime has done everything possible to bury the truth of what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Young Chinese below the age of 35 today either know nothing about it or believe that it was the protesters who were the criminals. It is, in the words of the title of Louisa Lim’s excellent book, the "People’s Republic of Amnesia."
For those who participated or observed the events of 1989, however, the search for truth goes on. Memories have not faded. Indeed, as the Tiananmen Mothers — a group set up by the mothers of some of the student leaders — said in a statement translated by Human Rights in China: “The hard facts of the massacre are etched into history. No one can erase it; no power, however mighty, can alter it; and no words or tongues, however clever, can deny it.”
On May 26, thousands marched in Hong Kong — the only city in China where it is still possible to talk about the Tiananmen massacre — to commemorate the anniversary. Catholics in Hong Kong organized a special exhibition to mark the occasion, reminding us that, despite recent rapprochement between the Holy See and Beijing, the Catholic Church in 1989 stood clearly on the side of the peaceful demonstrators. And Citizen Power Initiatives for China have established a petition to Xi Jinping, demanding to know what happened to “Tank Man,” the man in the iconic photograph standing, with his shopping bags, in front of a tank.
A new film produced by the media group Bitter Winter, which focuses on religious liberty and human rights in China, draws a link between the Tiananmen massacre and both the religious revival and the crackdown on religion that has followed.
Tiananmen and Religious Persecution in China, an 18-minute documentary, highlights the fact that disillusion with the Chinese Communist Party after 1989 led many Chinese to turn to religion. Bob Fu is one such person, and he describes his testimony in a Lenten reflection video produced two years ago. In particular, this has resulted in extraordinary growth in the Protestant house church movement and in new religious movements, notably the Church of Almighty God, founded in 1991, and the Buddha-school spiritual movement known as Falun Gong.
The war on faith
In his book The Souls of China: The return of religion after Mao, Ian Johnson claims there are at least 60 million Christians in China today and as many as 400 million religious believers altogether.
At the same time, the Chinese regime saw the role the Church played in the demise of communism across Eastern Europe and — after Tiananmen — grew increasingly alarmed at the rise of religion in China. This has led to what many describe as the most severe crackdown on religion in China since the Cultural Revolution. The U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, has said the Chinese regime is “at war with faith” while adding that it is “a war they will not win.”
The plight of the Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang is the most dramatic expression of this war on faith, with an estimated one million or more incarcerated in prison camps. The persecution of Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists continues. And the repression of Christianity has intensified severely in recent years. Thousands of crosses have been destroyed, dozens of churches forcibly closed and several churches have been destroyed, bulldozed or dynamited out of existence.
The closure of large unregistered churches such as Beijing’s Zion Church and Early Rain Church in Chengdu last year are the most high-profile cases, but many other churches have been shut down. At least 11 members of Early Rain, including Pastor Wang Yi, remain in jail. In the years since the Tiananmen massacre, numerous Catholic clergy have been detained, placed under house arrest or disappeared, their whereabouts unknown even despite the deal agreed between Beijing and the Vatican last year. And, according to China Aid, authorities demolished 5,911 temples in Jiangsu province in just one month earlier this year.
Revised regulations on religion were introduced early last year introducing even tighter restrictions on religious practice. Children under 18 are prohibited from attending places of worship, and cameras have been installed to monitor who does. A new law regulating religious activity online has been drafted, requiring people to obtain a license before disseminating any religious materials on the internet.
In some parts of the country, Christians have been coerced into replacing religious paintings with portraits of Xi Jinping as a personality cult from the Mao era returns. Xi, who has amended the constitution to make him president for life and insert his thought within it, has unleashed a campaign to Sinicize religion, which includes requiring all religions to teach the Communist Party’s propaganda.
About eight years ago, I met with Chinese human rights lawyers and civil society groups in a restaurant in Beijing. That was in the pre-Xi Jinping days when space for civil society, media and some forms of dissent existed, albeit constrained. Since Xi came to power, however, most of those lawyers and activists have been arrested, imprisoned, placed under house arrest, disappeared, disqualified or intimidated into silence.
A crackdown on human rights lawyers in 2015 led to the arrest or interrogation of at least 300 of them. Since then, even if they have been released from jail, most are unable to work. The most prominent, Gao Zhisheng, famous for defending Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and other victims of human rights abuses, remains missing.
Fear prevails in Hong Kong
And even in Hong Kong, known as “Asia’s world city” where basic freedoms are supposed to be protected and the principle of “one country, two systems” is supposed to mean a high degree of autonomy, fear prevails. In May, two activists were granted asylum in Germany, becoming the first-ever refugees from Hong Kong. Pro-democracy activists have been jailed, opposition legislators and candidates have been disqualified, the Financial Times’ Asia editor was expelled from the city and I myself was denied entry in October 2017.
Mainland Chinese law has been introduced in Hong Kong territory through the concept of “co-location” at the Kowloon rail terminus, meaning that passengers travelling on the high-speed rail link to the mainland can be prosecuted in China if they commit a crime in the train station before even leaving Hong Kong.
And now Hong Kong faces a new threat with the impending imposition of new measures to allow suspected criminals to be extradited from the city to the mainland, ending the “firewall” introduced by the British to protect Hong Kong citizens after the handover. This has united two usually polarized communities — businesses and human rights activists — who fear that, if introduced, no one in Hong Kong will be safe. Many fear, given the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers four years ago, that this will mean, in effect, “legalized kidnapping.”
One of the Hong Kong booksellers, Gui Minhai, remains in detention on the mainland, so Hong Kongers have good reason to fear this new measure. In May, the European Union demarched the Hong Kong government — the highest form of diplomatic complaint — and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out. The American Chamber of Commerce, the International Chamber of Commerce and the Hong Kong Bar Association have all opposed the measure, and the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, has described it as the “worst thing” for Hong Kong since the handover, but so far Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam appears determined to press on.
On top of the intensifying repression within China’s borders, the regime is increasingly aggressive overseas. The threats to Taiwan are mounting. The dangers of Huawei are gaining worldwide attention. The risks inherent in China’s Confucius Institutes are more widely known. And China increasingly threatens its critics abroad. Chinese dissidents in exile face serious intimidation, and even I have been targeted, receiving over 10 anonymous letters from Hong Kong sent to my neighbors, my employers and my mother.
So, 30 years after Tiananmen, there is every reason to commemorate the tragic massacre and to reflect on our response. A regime that sent tanks and guns to slaughter its people now seeks to hide the evidence, threaten its critics, eliminate alternative ideas and impose absolute control. The regime has returned to the dark days of forced televised confessions, is accused of forcibly extracting the organs of prisoners of conscience and is deploying technology in an unprecedented way to monitor its citizens’ behavior, with a new social credit system on an Orwellian scale. It managed to disappear the head of Interpol, and it remains the world’s top executioner.
Such a regime is increasingly a danger to its own people and the world. But its brutality is a reflection of its insecurity, for a government that is confident would not have to blow up churches, jail dissidents or seek to silence critics. Nor would a confident superpower ban Winnie the Pooh after comparisons were made between the country’s leader and the fictional bear. Its behavior is that of a bully, and there is only one way to handle bullies. It is time to stand up to the Chinese regime.