The Legacy and Enduring Importance of the Tiananmen Massacre Explored at Hearing

The Legacy and Enduring Importance of the Tiananmen Massacre Explored at Hearing

(Washington)—Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the Chair and Co-chair, respectively, of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), held a hearing on the 35th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre examining both the legacy of the Tiananmen protests for democracy and human rights and their ongoing importance for a new generation of rights advocates. The hearing, "Tiananmen at 35--The Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights and Democracy in China" also explored the intimidation and harassment faced by a new generation of advocates in the United States and Canada and the restrictions placed on discussion and the annual Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong. 

In addition to the Chairs, the hearing was attended by Senators Laphonza R. Butler (D-CA) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Representatives Zach Nunn (R-IA), Andrea Salinas (D-OR), and Jennifer Wexton (D-VA). Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also joined the hearing.  

In his opening statement, CECC Chair Smith said, “Tiananmen is not simply a past event to study and ponder, but a present reminder that when the Chinese people are free to assemble and to speak, they demand liberty and political reform. What happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989 should also remind us that the principles of freedom and democracy represent a fundamental human yearning for dignity and human rights that is not limited to any culture or country. They are universal aspirations that neither tanks nor torture can ever destroy.” 

CECC Cochair Merkley said in his opening statement that “the people gathered in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 were demanding their government respond to their grievances as well as their aspirations. The government’s brutal response ended lives and ended optimism that day. But it did not end the desire for freedom and the desire for dignity. Those feelings are universal and innate to every human everywhere. It is a spark that cannot be extinguished. Thirty-five years later, that brutal grip of oppression has only tightened. People cannot openly express dissent...The Chinese government’s relentless effort to suppress them does not diminish the yearning of the people of China to realize them. Or our responsibility to speak out for them. That is why we are here.”

Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo, currently the Executive Director of Human Rights in China, said in his testimony that “We remember Tiananmen because it reminds us of what a different China could have been; because Chinese people demonstrated their love of freedom and democracy through their protests and resistance. The fight didn’t stop then—for most of us, it was only the beginning of our journey. There was Liu Xiaobo, who gave up a position as a visiting scholar at Columbia University to fly back to join the students on Tiananmen Square. He refused to leave China, and died as the first and only Nobel Peace laureate who died in prison without ever seeing the award. There is Xu Zhiyong, who was only a high school student when the massacre happened, but who was resolved from that moment on to dedicate his life to the dream of a free, democratic, and beautiful China. His New Citizens’ Movement gained tens of thousands of followers, from all over China. He was recently sentenced to fourteen years in prison.” See video clip of the testimony.

Yang Ruohui, a student at Humber College in Canada and founder of Citizens Assembly testified about his campus activism and the harassment he experienced saying he is “deeply intimidated by the atmosphere of fear cultivated by the Chinese Communist Party in Canada. However, the 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition movement further secured my determination to engage in the democracy movement. In Toronto, I actively participated with my Hong Kong friends in organizing support for the Hong Kong people. As someone from mainland China, I faced pressure from my own [Chinese] community, dealing with psychological stress from harassment by Communist Party supporters…Some Chinese, organized by the consulate, drove their luxury cars through our lines, shouting insults. They burned our flowers at the Statue of Democracy; some protesters even received death threats. My life was filled with harassment from strangers, and I felt isolated within my own community.”

“Karin” (an alias), a student activist at Columbia University, told the Commissioners that one of the reasons that she was appearing at the hearing in disguise was because she “feared” being attacked on her campus and admitted that the “intensity of transnational repression against outspoken Chinese overseas students has only escalated.  In most cases, through personal harassment, transnational surveillance, and the coercion of proxies in this case meaning the interrogation and intimidation of family members in China. My fellow student activists experienced this retribution in ever increasing quantities and severity this year. Yet unlike Hong Kong and Uyghur activists, few can step forward and tell the story.”

Rowena He, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Texas, Austin reflected in her testimony about the importance of preserving the memory of the Tiananmen protests and their violent suppression and recounted how her teaching position at the Chinese University of Hong Kong was terminated, saying “Hong Kong used to be a beacon of light” where people would gather to light a candle to remember June 4, 1989, each year, “but now the organizers of these vigils are in exile or jail.”    

Zhou Fengsuo echoed the sentiment of the panel that there was hope for the future because a young generation was motivated to preserve the memory of Tiananmen and to advocate for freedom and human rights in China saying “Even though the CCP has tried, in many ways successfully, to erase the memory of the Tiananmen protests, it remains the most sought-after information for young people from China. They are eager to embrace the Tiananmen protests as a source of energy and inspiration. Many of them are willing to risk a lot to preserve the memory...and I realized that after 33 years, I was finally seeing the younger generation stepping up to carry the torch of freedom that I have carried with me ever since 1989, from Tiananmen Square.”

Opening statements by the Chairs, witness testimony and recommendations for Congressional action, and a video archive of the hearing, can be accessed on the CECC’s hearing webpage.