Eyewitnesses defied Beijing
In May, veterans of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement spoke out about the 20th anniversary of the tragic slaughter of Tiananmen Square and U.S. policy toward China.
Twenty years ago earlier, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China to call for peaceful democratic reforms. In the face of these massive demonstrations, the Chinese Communist Party hesitated. Apparently some in the party’s leadership considered the tragedy communist rule had been for countless millions of lives destroyed by famines, cultural revolutions and totalitarian controls under its regime.
But we know what happened. On June 4, 1989, Jiang Zemin pushed the reformers aside, cleared the square with tanks, and shot to death thousands of peaceful demonstrators.
In 1996, during a visit to the United States at the invitation of President Clinton, Gen. Chi Haotian, China’s defense minister and the general in command at Tiananmen Square, boldly proclaimed that “Not a single person lost his life in Tiananmen Square.” According to Gen. Chi, the Chinese army did nothing more violent than “pushing of people.”
Gen. Chi was honored not only with a meeting with Mr. Clinton in the White House, but was accorded full military honors, including a 19-gun salute and visits to military bases. Rather than getting the red carpet, Gen. Chi should have been held to account for his crimes against humanity.
To counter this affront, I quickly put together a hearing of eyewitnesses to the Tiananmen Square massacre, including some journalists. I also invited Gen. Chi or anyone from his government to testify before our committee. They were no-shows.
One witness, Xuecan Wu, former editor of the People’s Daily, was singled out for punishment and received four years in prison for trying to tell the truth to his readers. Mr. Wu called Gen. Chi’s claims “shameless” and told my subcommittee he personally saw “at least 30 carts carrying dead and wounded people.”
Eyewitness Jian-Li Yang, vice president of the Alliance for a Democratic China, testified: “I saw trucks of soldiers who got out and started firing automatic weapons at the people. Each time they fired the weapons, three or four people were hit, and each time the crowd went down to the ground. We were there for about an hour and a half. I saw 13 people killed.”
Time magazine’s David Aikman, another eyewitness, told Congress: “Children were killed holding hands with their mothers. A 9-year-old boy was shot seven or eight times in the back, and his parents placed the corpse on a truck and drove through the streets of northwest Beijing on Sunday morning. ‘This is what the government has done,’ the distraught mother kept telling crowds of passersby through a makeshift speaker system.”
Thousands died and about 7,000 were wounded.
In the 1990s, I visited Beijing Prison No. 1, a bleak gulag where 40 Tiananmen Square prisoners were being unjustly detained. We saw firsthand the price paid by brave and tenacious individuals for peacefully seeking freedom. And it was not pretty. They looked like the walking skeletons of Auschwitz.
Despite the hopes and expectations of some that robust trade with China would usher in at least a modicum of respect for human rights and fundamental liberties, China’s government oppresses and tortures millions of its own citizens. Its brutal one-child policy makes brothers and sisters illegal. Forced abortion, forced sterilization and ruinous fines are routine to ensure compliance.
Those still in prison due to the Tiananmen crackdown include five from Zhejiang Province: Wu Gaoxing, previously an academician; Chen Longde, a factory worker; Wang Donghai, a market manager; Mao Guoliang, a teacher; and Ye Wenxiang, a former bank accountant. China should release these prisoners at once.
The criminal slaughter at Tiananmen has had terrible and lasting consequences for the Chinese people and for the world. China had reached a turning point and failed to turn. Twenty years later, it still has not turned.
The Chinese people still live under a one-party government that represses dissenters, controls all news media and blocks and censors the Internet. The Communist Party persecutes religious believers and has stepped up its campaign of cultural genocide in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Last summer, I walked across Tiananmen Square. Officials searched me and squads of police surrounded my group, terrified we might hold up a sign or banner.
Today, an untold number of human rights activists remain incarcerated. The brave and noble human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng has been subjected to excruciating torture that continues today. We must raise our voices on his behalf — and for others like him.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said China’s human rights record would not “interfere” with other issues, especially China’s purchase of U.S. Treasury securities to finance America’s debt. Wittingly or not, that kind of attitude enables abuse and torture.
The U.S. government has not done enough to support the Chinese people. And our failure has been defining for our own foreign policy. President Obama has not shown much interest in human rights. In our policy toward Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Russia, to name a few countries, human rights has been dramatically downgraded.
Everyone in the human rights community needs to speak loud and clear on the need for the U.S. administration to find its voice on human rights. If we don’t persuade it to change its approach soon, this administration could become a disaster for human rights around the globe.
There is no better issue on which to find our voice than the issue on which we lost it — the Tiananmen massacre. Twenty years is a somber milestone, but also an opportunity. Let’s make our voices heard, so that those brave souls who died, or were wounded or imprisoned, did not speak out for freedom in vain.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the ranking Republican member of the Congressional Executive Commission on China.