Twenty-six years ago last week in China, the protests by students and other ordinary citizens calling for democracy, liberty and an end to corruption were crushed by the Chinese Communist Party.
The People’s Liberation Army, acting on the orders of the Communist Party, aimed their guns and tanks at the unarmed protesters, killing hundreds, if not thousands. At a crossroads that might have led to a bright future of democracy and rule of law, the party chose instead to turn on its citizens. People the world over were left heartbroken. But we have not forgotten.
I was not yet 18 then. I would have liked to have been part of the “Tiananmen generation” of students speaking out for justice. But because I am blind and lived in the countryside, I had little access to education. I learned what was happening in cities far beyond my village on TV and radio — early on, Chinese media reported on the protests — and I discussed the current issues with other villagers. Ordinary people overwhelmingly supported the demonstrators.
After the June 4 crackdown, the live broadcasts of the demonstrations ended. The only voices that remained in the media offered the party line, all of them strongly critical of the students.
Now, a quarter-century later, fantastical tales of China’s economic might and rapid development dazzle the world. But these stories obscure a cruder reality: Connection, corruption and fraud have funneled most of the nation’s wealth into the hands of the elite. The government issues reports of increased GDP (though it has a propensity to manipulate its statistics), while the country’s natural environment has been devastated, the rule of law has deteriorated and human rights have been trampled under an iron heel. For many people, life in the countryside is more difficult than ever.
To this day, the Communist Party does not dare admit the truth of 1989. It doesn’t want the Chinese people to know what really happened in that year — because it still doesn’t want to take China down a normal track of democracy, rule of law and liberty.
In later years, people began seeking ways to describe the change in the authorities after 1989. “The furtive thief became a swaggering robber” is a phrase that took root, meaning corruption accelerated and morals degenerated following the Tiananmen Square massacre. By authorizing the violence, the message from the Communist Party to those of privilege was: “Don’t worry — enjoy the corruption! We have the guns and the state power. Whoever opposes us will be repressed.”
And indeed, compared with the 1980s, corruption has become much more blatant and common.
Since I arrived in the United States in 2012, many journalists have asked what I think about the future of China: Will it reform gradually, or will change come via revolution? They want to know if I think China will experience a bloody confrontation between the people and those in power. But the blood of Chinese citizens is already being shed. The detention and surveillance of people such as human rights activist Gao Zhisheng, artist Ai Weiwei, scholar Guo Yushan, anti-corruption activist Liu Ping, human rights lawyer Guo Feixiong and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo are well known, but all over there are forms of brutality being inflicted on the people without the world’s notice.
On May 2, at a train station in Heilongjiang province, petitioner Xu Chunhe was shot and killed in front of his family by a police officer. Instead of conducting a proper investigation in search of the truth, the police warned witnesses against speaking out, forced a student who took video at the scene to destroy it and detained Xu’s mother at a health-care facility. This series of events was similar to so many other shocking and heart-wrenching incidents that go unnoticed outside of China.
The Chinese authorities are very effective at hiding the truth. The investigation of the killing of Zhou Xiuyun by police in the city of Taiyuan remains a black box. Cao Shunli died in custody after being abducted at the airport because of her request to participate in drafting China’s Universal Periodic Review, a national human rights report required by the United Nations. Dissident trade unionist Li Wangyang was found hanged at a hospital shortly after vowing in interviews to keep campaigning against one-party rule. I myself am a survivor of their brutality; the party spent millions to persecute me and my family. The list goes on and on, but more and more such incidents are being exposed by citizens.
Twenty-six years after the Tiananmen crackdown, there still has been no justice, and the Communist Party continues its crimes. The root cause of the injustice in China is the dictatorship; there can be no freedom or rule of law under totalitarian control. To defend our human rights and establish a just society, we need to end the tyranny. As long as the Chinese Communist Party rules over the people, the country and the law with impunity, as long as it can snatch away the country’s wealth in the name of governing the country, the people will struggle and suffer.
Global attention is critical if there is ever to be change. I call on the people of the free world to stand with the Chinese people. I implore the international media to focus more on everyday people instead of those in power. I know from experience that in China such media attention can be like lightning splitting the darkness. It will afflict the Communist Party and encourage the people.
Dear friends, let us persevere to achieve justice.
Cheng Guangcheng is the author of “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.”
Special to The Washington Post