Jun 04, 2019

30 Years After Tiananmen Square: The Endurance of Violent Oppression

30 years ago, in the spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Beijing and assembled at Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy, freedom of speech and an end to the widespread corruption in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Led by students, these pro-democracy demonstrations were by far the most extensive outbreak of collective dissent since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Even though the political system in China remained unaltered after the modern Chinese founding father’s death, the ensuing decade was characterized by rapid economic liberalization and social change. However, as the benefits of these developments were mainly captured by the political elite, Chinese students, workers and even government employees started protesting, which eventually culminated into the Tiananmen Movement in April 1989. After a seven-week standoff, China’s political leadership called in the security forces to crush the dissent. On the 3rd and 4th of June 1989, units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLC) entered Tiananmen Square with assault rifles and tanks and began forcibly dissolving the protests. As the security forces opened fire indiscriminately at the demonstrators, the bloody crackdown has become known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Estimates of the death toll vary from several hundreds to multiple thousands.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Communist Party of China implemented a strategy of nationwide social control in order to prevent a recurrence of such dissident movements. It launched its so-called “Patriotic Education Campaign” in the 1990s, which has transformed schools at every level of society into forums for patriotic education. Accordingly, a large proportion of Chinese society remains unaware of what happened at Tiananmen Square or has been taught that it was a legitimate reaction to a counter-revolutionary rebellion. China’s suppression and distortion of history have been accompanied by various suppressions of other kinds – social, political, cultural, religious and ethnic. Political oppression, surveillance and censorship have all intensified dramatically since Xi Jinping became the leader of China’s Communist Party in 2012. Online and social media platforms have been heavily supervised and restricted in an attempt to crack down on politically sensitive content. One of the most troubling consequences of China’s attempts to create a homogeneous Chinese society and a unitary autocratic state is the oppression and persecution that ethno-religious minorities such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans and the Southern Mongolians are facing.

In the Xinjiang province, Uyghur Muslims have been victims of systematic oppression and abuses as many have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned. It is currently estimated that more than one million Uyghurs have been detained in “political re-education camps”, where they undergo political indoctrination and maltreatment. Functioning like high-security prisons, the objective of these camps is to eradicate Uyghur culture, language and religion. There is a rapidly growing amount of evidence of human rights violations inside these camps, which shows torture, deaths in custody and forced labour occurring on a daily basis. Even outside these camps, Xinjiang authorities subject Uyghurs to pervasive controls on personal life, restricting their freedom of religion, expression, association and movement.

In Tibet, the Chinese government has implemented a similar campaign to oppress Tibetan culture and religion. Ever since China occupied the formerly autonomous region in the 1950s it has systematically oppressed any form of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. Tibetans have been deprived of their political, cultural and religious rights as the Chinese government tries to enforce its control through arbitrary detentions and imprisonments, the violent suppression of peaceful protests and the tight control on Buddhist activities. The Chinese government’s systematic interference in Tibetan Buddhists’ freedom of religion is exemplified by its attempts to supplant the Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, with a Communist-approved alternative. Moreover, it has been reported that camps similar to those in the Xinjiang province are also being constructed in Tibet.

Southern Mongolians in China have also been marginalised by Chinese policies of forced assimilation. These policies have been aimed at eradicating the traditional pastoral livelihood practices of ethnic Mongolians inhabiting the Inner Mongolia region. The forcible displacement of Mongolian herders and widespread bans on livestock grazing has left many landless, unemployed and homeless. Moreover, the Chinese government has continuously used indiscriminate violence to repress any sentiment of self-determination or political activism in the region. Similar to the Uyghurs and Tibetans, Chinese oppression and persecution has left many ethnic Mongolians in a marginalised position in their traditional homeland.

With 2019 marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese government continues to violently suppress any ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, as well as political opposition. China’s strategy of social control and oppression that it has implemented since 1989 has left many homeless, unemployed, imprisoned or dead. As the Chinese government continues to take further measures to restrict the freedom of its citizens, conditions in the country remain extremely troubling for human rights observers. At the same time, few international actors have taken appropriate action to address the situation or press for accountability on these issues.  

In face of the dire human rights situation in China, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) is calling upon the international community to increase its efforts to prevent these widespread violations of human dignity, as well as to start holding China accountable for continuously violating the rights of its ethno-religious minorities afforded to them by the very treaties China has signed up to in the United Nations (UN) Charter. As China has grown into an important economic partner for many UN Member States, it is imperative that such partnerships also recognize the universality and indispensability of the human rights of their citizens. As both the Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia regions are geographically important to China’s new “Belt & Road initiative”, this provides an excellent opportunity for UN Member States to include human rights in their dialogue with China. Although the Tiananmen Massacre has been allowed to pass with impunity, on the basis of China’s unabated neglect of human rights the UN and its Member States should start taking meaningful action to foster positive change in China.


UNPO welcomes the statement by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini on the 30th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square event, which can be found here.



Picture courtesy of Michael Mandiberg @Flickr