Thirty years ago this week, the Chinese army rolled in their tanks to quell a peaceful protest in Beijing’s monumental Tiananmen Square and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
The bloodshed on 3-4 June 1989 marked a tragic end to one of the most momentous protests in the global fight for freedom and democracy.
The photo of the “Tank Man”, holding nothing but a white shopping bag standing in front of a row of mighty military tanks, was to become one of the most iconic images of resistance. One man bravely standing up to a powerful oppressive state.
If China had learnt the right lessons from the Tiananmen crackdown, it would be holding memorials for those killed. It would have apologised and provided compensation to the victims and their relatives. It would have brought those responsible for the tragedy to justice.
But China has done none of those things. Instead, the government has fine-tuned its tactics of repression.
In 1989, soldiers physically moved through the streets into a square packed with peaceful activists, shooting people along the way.
Authorities then made lists of those considered “dangerous” for speaking out, tracked them down and jailed them without fair trials. They prevented those who managed to flee to safety abroad from ever returning home, even to see their dying parents.
Today, tanks on the streets have given way to online repression, surveillance and censorship as the modern tools of control.
Police in China have become experts at anticipating public protests by monitoring online chatter and using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology for mass surveillance and censorship.
The internet may be the main forum to debate sensitive social issues today, but people in China do so at great risk. Online activists who report on human rights abuses or use social media to organize demonstrations have been detained or given long jail terms.
In January, Huang Qi, founder of “64 Tianwang”, a website that reports on protests in China, was tried on state secrets charges for this work. One of China’s growing number of “cyber-activists”, he is still awaiting the verdict but has already spent more than two years in prison. Ten other citizen journalists who contributed to the website are also currently behind bars.
This “cyber-repression” is also taking other forms.
For some, it is the inability to access information when typing terms such as “human rights”, “Tiananmen” or “June 4” into a search engine. Even the mere mention or commemoration on the internet of the Tiananmen crackdown risks heavy retaliation.
Others, such as those living in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, are living under a virtual police state, tracked by the authorities through an extensive surveillance network and a vast database of genetic information.
Up to one million Uyghurs and other members of mainly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained in internment camps in Xinjiang merely for peacefully observing their religion and practicing their culture, or for contacting family and friends abroad.
The Chinese authorities are not doing this alone.
The country’s Cyber Security Law demands that internet service providers censor and gather data from users if they want to operate in the country.
Reluctant to turn their backs on one of the largest markets in the world, foreign companies seem to be having a hard time rejecting these rules – even in the face of global criticism.
In December, Google decided to shut down “Project Dragonfly”, its plan to develop a censored search app for China. This followed an international outcry, including from Google’s own employees, after the project’s existence was leaked to The Intercept. However, the tech giant has yet to rule out launching such an app in the future.
But fighting against people’s urge for freedom, offline or online, is a losing battle.
Decade after decade, China’s citizens have shown they will not be cowed. Even under today’s intensifying repression, many brave people are still prepared to stand up and peacefully speak out.
With suffocating online censorship, students, human rights activists and workers are still prepared to take their demands to the streets. A strike map created by the NGO China Labour Bulletin, shows at least one protest takes place in China each day.
In the coming days, anyone who tries to publicly remember those who were killed in the Tiananmen bloodshed can expect to be swiftly taken away by police.
In April, activists Chen Bing, Fu Hailu, Luo Fuyu and Zhang Junyong were found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, for their unique commemoration of the Tiananmen anniversary on a special labels for bottles of “baijiu” (a Chinese liquor).
The families who lost children on 3–4 June 1989, are likely to be placed under house arrest. For three decades they have faced surveillance and harassment from authorities trying to suppress their campaign for justice.
All these grieving families are asking for is truth and justice. The Chinese government should heed their calls to launch an open and independent inquiry into the 1989 military crackdown on Tiananmen, hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable and provide compensation to the families of the victims.
But until that happens, opening up public space for debates and dissenting voices would be a good start. Immediately releasing people held in prison unfairly is another must.
For no matter how much economic wealth it has and how technologically advanced it is, a country cannot truly move forward without first dealing with its past.
There’s no amount of censorship that will erase the horror of 4 June 1989 from history.
Roseann Rife is East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International