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China: Rights Abuses Continue 10 Years After Massacre (Part One)

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 2 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On the night into June 4, 1989, Chinese security forces moved in to crush a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.

Hundreds of activists were killed, no one knows for sure exactly how many, and thousands more around China were arrested, some of whom were sentenced to long prison terms.

It is safe to say that the events of that night have changed China. Top authorities had ordered troops to fire on unarmed, student-led demonstrators, and the army, The People's Army, had followed orders. The events created a huge divide, with the country's leaders and military on one side and the most politically active and motivated of the country's citizenry on the other.

The events of June 4, 1989, also created a new divide between China and western nations over the issue of human rights, a divide that largely remains.

The 10th anniversary of the massacre is being marked around the world. In the United States, the U.S. Congress passed resolutions condemning China's human rights abuses, and calling for an official enquiry into the crackdown. It has also called for the release of jailed dissidents, compensation for families of the dead, and for exiles to be allowed home.

For its part, China has -- as always -- rejected such calls as interference in its internal affairs. Beijing's view is that Tiananmen was a revolt which had to be crushed to ensure social stability.

Internally, the Tiananmen Square events continue to haunt the Chinese leadership. Rights groups report that in the run-up to the 10th anniversary, nervous authorities detained more than 50 activists, apparently as a warning to the dissident movement not to try to mark the day. Many, but not all, of those detained were later reported released.

So, has anything changed for the better in China's observance of human rights in the last decade? Looking at the situation as it stands, the answer would seem to be: not much.

The London-based human rights organization Amnesty International says it has records of more than 240 people still in jail as a result of the pro-democracy demonstrations, and it says that is only a fraction of the total who were unfairly sentenced at the time.

In addition, last year, the authorities cracked down on activists who had attempted to set up independent political movements in a number of provinces and cities, in some cases handing out long jail terms.

At the moment, the pro-democracy movement appears to be frozen, and Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam says no immediate change in the authorities' attitude can be expected:

"In a few months' time, on October first, the leadership will also be marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, so obviously, the leadership does not want any disruption from the dissidents, and it's highly possible that the tough line against dissidents will continue, at least until the end of the year."

But what of the longer perspective, are there any signs of hope? Amnesty International's senior China researcher Louise Fischer sees limited grounds for some optimism, saying that the present economic reform process must eventually be matched by political liberalism. She says China is making progress in the legal field:

"They have recognized that their laws have to be more in line with international standards, so they are actually looking at trying to change these laws, and there is a lot of discussion even within the legal profession within China itself to making these laws become fairer."

Civil rights activists everywhere regularly argue that having a reasonable legal framework is one of the key long-term requirements for progress on rights issues. But the related problem is whether authorities actually observe the laws and regulations in practice. Certainly there are negative examples to be found in Chinas case. For instance, many prisoners still jailed since the 1989 events were sentenced for crimes which are no longer part of the criminal law code, following the code's revision in 1997. But still the original sentences are being carried out.

Further, China last year became a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was that signing which encouraged activists around the country to believe that the atmosphere had changed sufficiently to allow for independent parties. However, last year's crackdown put a swift end to those hopes.

There are also continuing concerns over the Chinese government's treatment of non-Chinese ethnic groups in the West. Tibet continues to win considerable international attention. But its exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has made little if any progress in getting Beijing to begin a dialogue on the region's future.

Getting less attention is the treatment of the Uighur Muslim community of Xinjiang province in the northwest. Amnesty International says scores of Uighurs, many of them political prisoners, have been sentenced to death in the past two years. Others, including women, are alleged to have been killed in circumstances which appear to constitute extra-judicial executions.

Amnesty's Fischer says that in view of these continuing problems, the international community must keep up its pressure on Beijing:

"Pressure from outside I'm sure will contribute to change within China, and I think that even the authorities themselves see that there is need for change."

China, the most populous nation in the world, may well also have the world's biggest economy at some point in the next century. But it goes into the new millennium with the issue of full rights for all its citizens still unresolved.

(This is the first of two features on China 10 years after the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.)