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US Calls for Release of Detainees on Tiananmen Anniversary

  • Victor Beattie

A Chinese police officer points as he speaks to a Chinese man held at a security checkpoint on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

A Chinese police officer points as he speaks to a Chinese man held at a security checkpoint on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

The United States has called on China to free those detained ahead of the 25th anniversary of the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy activists which is believed to have left hundreds dead. A prominent Chinese dissident told a Washington audience the Chinese people are overcoming their fear of the government and speaking out more boldly for democratic change, which he said is ‘inevitable.’

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf Tuesday called on Beijing to release all those detained ahead of the June 4 anniversary and allow for greater freedom of speech and expression in China.

"We very clearly called on the Chinese authorities to release all the activists, journalists and lawyers that have been detained ahead of the 25th anniversary. This is something we’ve been very clear about. China is a growing country. We’ve talked a lot about the fact that this is not a zero-sum game here, and as they grow I think it’s time to allow some more space, quite frankly, for discussion in their own country, particularly around this kind of anniversary,” said Harf.

In a statement Wednesday from Poland, President Obama said the United States continues to honor the memory of those who gave their lives in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989. He called on Beijing to give a full accounting of those killed, detained or missing in connection with the crackdown. He also urged China to guarantee the universal rights and fundamental freedoms of all Chinese citizens.

Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who escaped house arrest in 2012 and was allowed to emigrate to the United States from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, told the American Enterprise Institute in Washington Tuesday that while there has been great economic progress in China, there has been very little political reform. He said people are still afraid to speak out about the June 1989 massacre.

Speaking in English publicly for the first time, Chen said a government that cannot face its own history is a government without a future. He praised the opening of a museum in Hong Kong dedicated to remembering the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He said it is part of a global narrative that reminds the Chinese government the anniversary has not been forgotten.

"Every candlelight vigil makes the perpetrators shudder in fear. It gives people courage to think and speak aloud again," said Chen.

Chen thanked those who, in his words, refused to bury history and have pursued the truth about what happened 25 years ago.

"Today, many Chinese people are beginning to awaken. They are overcoming their fear and working for democracy. The Chinese will change, but we must stop the Communist Party from brutalizing and suppressing the Chinese people," Chen continued.

He called on the outside world to look beyond China’s economic success and help end Internet censorship and, in his words, break down the Great Firewall of China.

Memorials and Protests for the Tiananmen Anniversary

Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer with Freedom Now, said that even though one-third of Chinese today were born after 1989, the proliferation of mobile phones and efforts to break down the firewall have made people more aware of what happened. He anticipates justice will eventually be done.

“Not necessarily justice in terms of holding individual perpetrators to account, but ultimately any authoritarian government is going to come to a point in its existence where the population is going to demand an accountability for past wrongs," said Genser.

Genser acknowledged that, as China rises, it becomes more immune to outside pressure to improve its rights record. However, he said, he remains optimistic because the Chinese people are speaking out, with an estimated 120,000 protests taking place over economic issues annually. He said the government is losing the information war and is being pressured to become more responsive to public demands.

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