While the death count was still rising in Tiananmen Square on June 4,1989, NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw called China “a nation at war with itself.” The Chinese People’s Liberation Army had just opened fire into crowds of young protestors. Tanks rolled on to the square to intimidate unarmed civilians into submission. It brought a bloody end to weeks of student-led protests in favor of greater political participation.
That was 32 years ago. Yet, the photo of a string of tanks facing down a lone student who stood in their way remains a defining image of the Chinese government’s relationship with its people.
Dissent is no more tolerated in Xi Jinping’s China today than it was in 1989. One need not look farther than the Chinese government’s suppression of human rights advocates for evidence of this reality.
Well-known human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s condition and location has been unknown since 2017, following long periods of detention during which he was brutally tortured. The Chinese government’s political persecution drove Gao to the Christian faith. Known for serving those from oppressed groups including Christians and Falun Gong adherents when it was taboo to do so, he was harshly punished for his outspokenness and moral clarity.
In 2018, Uyghur advocate Rushan Abbas spoke at a Hudson Institute panel about growing challenges for the Uyghur people under the Chinese government’s rule. Six days later, her sister and aunt in Xinjiang disappeared. Her sister has been detained continuously since then and the Chinese foreign ministry announced in 2020 that she received a 20-year prison sentence for terrorism-related charges. It’s a laughable charge for the former medical doctor, and Abbas believes it is in retaliation for her advocacy in the United States.
The Chinese government will go to great lengths to stifle criticism of its human rights violations or other unseemly policies.
The memory of student protests in Tiananmen Square was long commemorated by the people of Hong Kong, who resonated with the students’ call for democracy and reform. Since the passing of a new national security law, the annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong—an event forbidden on the mainland—was banned by police last year and is now a thing of the past. This year, activists merely hung posters with cryptic messages, afraid to find out which phrases might violate new national security measures.
In what came to be known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the official death count remains unknown. Estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand. Though Beijing obscures the facts, history matters. By suppressing the truth about the shameful crackdown in 1989, the Chinese government is trying to erase history. But by doing so, they will merely repeat it. The cycle of Chinese government abuses against dissidents must come to an end as China seeks a positive international spotlight.
The United States must speak out on behalf of the Chinese people, who merely seek to live out their faith, express their opinions, and participate in the governance of their country. These are basic rights owed to all Chinese citizens, and the free world ought to stand with the individuals brave enough to publicly demand them.
Just like the protestor now known as the “Tank Man” was undeterred as he stared down armored vehicles, the Chinese people remain resilient even in the face of totalitarian efforts to suppress any dissent. An authoritarian regime can use its power to intimidate its people, but the human hope for freedom is not so easily crushed.