Those with the freedom to do so must ensure that the Tiananmen Square massacre is never forgotten — and that we speak out for the cause of freedom for which so many gave their lives｜Benedict Rogers
Later today, I will be speaking in London’s Leicester Square at a commemoration of the massacre on June 4, 1989, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The vigil is organized by exiled Hong Kong pastor Roy Chan of the Good Neighbour North District Church.
There’s a deep symbolic significance about this. Pastor Chan is well-known for assisting Hong Kong’s protesters in 2019, thirty years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It has been reported that HSBC froze his bank accounts as a consequence, and he went into exile. Hong Kong is enduring its own crackdown at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although the tanks have not rolled in, Hong Kong’s protests were crushed by severe police brutality, followed by what we could call a ‘legislative massacre’ which has dismantled all of the city’s remaining freedoms.
Every year since 1989, Hong Kongers have gathered at a candlelit vigil in Victoria Park in their tens of thousands to remember those who sacrificed their lives in the cause of freedom in Tiananmen Square and throughout China that year. It is estimated that the troops and tanks killed at least 10,000 people, according to diplomatic cables. When I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover, I always went to Victoria Park, and was deeply inspired by the occasion. The fact that Hong Kong was the only city under Chinese sovereignty that was able to hold such a rally was a sign of Hong Kong’s autonomy and distinctiveness.
But today, the Victoria Park commemoration of June 4 in Hong Kong is banned, and public expressions of remembrance could result in jail sentences of up to five years. Even wearing black or holding a candle could be treated as a criminal act. The organizers of last year’s vigil are in jail. Even churches that say prayers or hold Masses to mark the anniversary may be doing so at their own risk. That’s why it is all the more important for those of us in the free world to ensure that the memory of June 4 is kept alive.
In the past 32 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, much has changed in China, and at the same time little has changed. It has achieved extraordinary economic growth, giving the regime power in the world that it lacked three decades ago. But what has not changed is the very nature of the CCP regime: its brutality, inhumanity, criminality, and mendacity.
It may not deploy its troops and tanks so readily — although the conflict on its Indian border, its forays into Taiwanese airspace, and its aggression in the South China Sea should give us all cause for concern. But equally dangerous, if more sophisticated, is its use of economic coercion, influence in multilateral institutions, surveillance technology, and infiltration in business, academia, the media, and politics around the world, all of which it uses to intimidate its critics, bully its opponents and silence dissent.
In 2002, American scholar Perry Link described the CCP as “the anaconda in the chandelier”, a description I have never forgotten. China may glisten like an alluring chandelier, but within it is a dangerous creature ready to crush you at any time.
In 2006, Amnesty International published a report titled No One Is Safe in China. At the time, despite my awareness of the CCP’s known repression, I felt the title was an exaggeration. I first went to China three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, to teach English in Qingdao for six months, at the age of 18, and even though the blood on the streets was barely dry, I had some optimism for China’s future. For the following twenty years, I travelled frequently in and out of China, and witnessed some signs of some limited liberalization: a more relaxed attitude towards unregistered churches in many cities, some civil society activism, citizen journalism and blogging, and the work of some courageous human rights lawyers. Perhaps, I thought, though the anaconda is still there, it is a bit more chilled out.
Now I realize that the title of that Amnesty report was prophetic. For today, it is a statement of fact that no one is safe. Those lawyers I met have all been jailed, disappeared, or disbarred. Citizen journalists, bloggers, and civil society activists have been shut down and arrested. And churches are facing the worst crackdown since the Cultural Revolution.
It is a sign of just how bad the human rights crisis in China is today that on this very day that we commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre, an independent tribunal has opened in London to investigate allegations of genocide of the Uyghurs. Chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the Uyghur Tribunal aims to reach a judgment on what the US government, the Canadian, Dutch, and British Parliaments and a growing number of scholars and experts claim is a genocide.
It follows a previous investigation two years ago into reports of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, also led by Sir Geoffrey. In its final judgment, the “China Tribunal” concluded that forced organ harvesting has been conducted on a widespread scale, that it amounts to a crime against humanity, and that those who deal with the CCP regime should be aware that they are dealing with “a criminal state”.
And then we see what the CCP has done to Hong Kong in the past few years, and especially the past twelve months. The “anaconda” is writhing violently around the city, determined to strangle every last breath of freedom. Almost every pro-democracy leader in Hong Kong is now on trial, in jail, or in exile. The pro-democracy camp has been forced off the streets and pushed out of the legislature.
Not content with this, the authorities are now increasing surveillance, with plans announced this week for a new law to require the provision of personal details when registering a mobile phone. In other words, no one will be able to have a private telephone conversation anymore.
The new head of the CCP’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong, Liu Guangyuan, warned two days ago that his priority would be to stop “foreign forces” from “meddling” in the city’s affairs. Support for universal human rights, freedoms promised under the Basic Law, or for principles guaranteed in an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, constitute “interference” in Mr Liu’s book. The anaconda is now hissing furiously.
For those of us outside China and Hong Kong, who have freedom, there is only one choice. We must continue to speak out, especially for those who find it increasingly dangerous to speak for themselves. We must ensure that the truth is known. As the CCP bans memories of 1989 in Hong Kong as it has done throughout the mainland, and over time works to brainwash children through propaganda in the school curriculum, the onus is on us who still have freedom to keep the memory of June 4 alive. And I certainly pledge to do that.
When I used to travel to Beijing regularly, one of my favorite things to do was to go to an old courtyard-style restaurant and then, after dinner, walk through the ramparts of the nearby Forbidden City in the moonlight. I could feel the centuries of imperial history. And then I’d walk past some People’s Liberation Army soldiers on sentry duty and under Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate and into the floodlit square. Every time I did so it was as if I could hear the voices of the 1989 martyred demonstrators calling to me: “Speak out”. That’s why, for them and for Hong Kongers, tonight I’ll be in Leicester Square to remember the massacre in Tiananmen Square. I hope everyone with the freedom to do so will do the same.
(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a member of the advisory group of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, an advisor to the Global Week of Prayer for China and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC.)
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