25th Tiananmen Anniversary Exposes D.C. Rift Over Playing Nice with China, Calling Out Abuses

WASHINGTON — As the Chinese government fiercely cracked down on anyone who dared to discuss the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago, members of Congress called for the U.S. to reassess how we keep human rights at the forefront while fostering an economic relationship with the People’s Republic.


But the White House had a subdued reaction to the anniversary, with no statement from President Obama and an administration nod to China’s “extraordinary progress.”

A resolution marking the Tiananmen anniversary passed a week ago in the House 379-1, with Rep. Walt Jones (R-N.C.) as the only dissenter. The co-sponsors for Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-N.J.) bill, which urges China “to stop censoring information about the Tiananmen Square massacre” and release prisoners of conscience, included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The bill “condemns the ongoing human rights abuses and persecution by the Government of the People’s Republic of China and its efforts to quell peaceful political dissent, censor the Internet, suppress ethnic and religious minorities, limit the number of children had by Chinese couples through coercion and violence, and harass and detain lawyers and freedom advocates seeking the Government’s commitment, in law and practice, to international human rights treaties and covenants to which it is a party” and called on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, to “take all appropriate steps to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship and to provide information to the people of China about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.”

It also calls on the administration to “make human rights, including religious freedom, a priority in bilateral discussions with the Chinese Government” and instructs the U.S. representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council “to introduce a resolution calling for an examination of the human rights practices of the Government of the People’s Republic of China.”


“Twenty-five years ago, a generation of young Chinese believed that there was a serious chance their government would greet them with an open hand of friendship, understanding, and empathy rather than a clenched fist…the beatings, bayoneting, torture, and murder of students, and the ubiquitous display of tanks turned that dream of freedom into a bloody nightmare,” Smith said.

An anniversary resolution in the Senate, which was placed on the legislative calendar in May, is similarly bipartisan, with Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) among the co-sponsors of Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) bill. (UPDATE 6 p.m.: The Senate passed the resolution.)

That resolution “condemns the ongoing and egregious human rights abuses by the Communist Government of the People’s Republic of China” and also calls for the release of political prisoners and for a U.S.-initiated examination of China’s human rights abuses at the UNHRC.

“June 4th marks 25 years since the government of China used violent suppression to injure and kill peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen Square,” Barrasso told PJM. “Our bipartisan resolution ensures that the world does not forget about the victims of this horrible tragedy and the hardships faced by their families.”

“The United States has a long record of championing liberty and freedom around the world—and this resolution sends a strong message to China that their ongoing human rights abuses are unacceptable,” he added. “We will continue to call on China to stop the harassment, detention and imprisonment of Chinese citizens exercising their freedom of expression, association and religion.”

No statement was issued directly from Obama, but one came from press secretary Jay Carney.


“Twenty-five years later, the United States continues to honor the memories of those who gave their lives in and around Tiananmen Square and throughout China, and we call on Chinese authorities to account for those killed, detained, or missing in connection with the events surrounding June 4, 1989,” Carney said.

“The United States will always speak out in support of the basic freedoms the protestors at Tiananmen Square sought, including the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press, and the freedoms of association and assembly. These freedoms—which are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the Chinese Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are values the United States champions around the world.”

Carney said the American people and government “applaud China’s extraordinary social and economic progress over the past three decades and value good relations with the Chinese people and government.”

“Even as we continue our cooperation on areas of common interest, the United States will continue to be clear about our differences, and urge the Chinese government to guarantee the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of all Chinese citizens,” he said.

Obama gave a brief mention of the anniversary during his 25th anniversary Freedom Day remarks in Warsaw.

“On the same day 25 years ago that Poles were voting here, tanks were crushing peaceful democracy protests in Tiananmen Square on the other side of the world,” Obama said. “The blessings of liberty must be earned and renewed by every generation — including our own. This is the work to which we rededicate ourselves today.”

The State Department left the official recognition ceremony to Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sara Sewall, who was marking the anniversary in a room at Foggy Bottom with Harvard-based historian Rowena He.


Secretary of State John Kerry, who is traveling with President Obama in Poland before continuing to Beirut, issued a statement calling it a day to “remember the courage and commitment of hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters who took to the streets to demand fundamental, universal rights.”

“I’ll never forget turning on the television in my office and seeing a column of tanks halted by a single man armed only with his conscience. In those uncertain days, I was in the presence of 2,000 students in Massachusetts. I shared with them that these events were not the happenings of a weekend, but the happenings of an epoch, of a lifetime, and they demanded a moral and political response,” Kerry said.

“For all people who seek freedom, Tiananmen Square still stirs our conscience. That is why the United States and the international community commemorate the tragic loss of hundreds of lives and the heavy price paid by those who braved the violence in pursuit of the freedom to express their views. We express our sorrow to the families still grieving the loved ones, the lost, and especially to the Tiananmen Mothers.”

Still, he lauded the Chinese government for “marked social and economic progress in the past several decades.”

“A peaceful, prosperous future is made more promising by healing the wounds of the past. We call on Chinese authorities to release from prison all those still serving sentences in connection with the events surrounding June 4, 1989, and end the ongoing pattern of harassment, detention, and official retribution against those who participated in the demonstrations, their family members, and those who continue to bravely speak out,” Kerry continued. “We also urge China to release those who were detained in advance of the anniversary of June 4, and to uphold its international commitments to protect fundamental freedoms of all in China. All societies are stronger when every citizen has a say and a stake in their country’s direction.”


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she knows of “no other country that has made as much economic and industrial progress in the last 25 years than China.”

“But what this anniversary reminds us is that progress still must be made in the areas of human rights, rule of law and governance. To honor those who lost their lives in Tiananmen Square and those who carry that legacy today, we have a responsibility to call attention to China’s record,” Feinstein said.

“The U.S.-China bilateral relationship is among the most important in the 21st century and is understandably focused on political, economic and security issues. I urge the Obama administration to continue this important engagement, but also to regularly and vigorously press the Chinese on human rights and democratic reforms,” she added. “Denying individuals the right to speak, to protest or to vote is not acceptable in today’s world, just as it wasn’t acceptable in 1989.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord recalled in a Tuesday conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that the U.S. knew the protests would be coming long before the summer of 1989.

“In 1988 my wife and I went out to Beijing University to meet with students. They were having a series of speakers. We didn’t think it was subversive,” Lord said. “We were very careful not to say anything critical of the government. But we met with the students who we could feel the passion about some of these issues a year before Tiananmen Square actually happened. So that was another indication.”

“And indeed, a couple days after being out at this — what became known as Democracy Salon at Beijing University — I got a personal message from Deng Xiaoping himself, conveyed through their ambassador to Washington, who was in Beijing at the time, saying I shouldn’t have gone out there. In very polite language I said he can’t veto my trips.”


Lord said the 250-city protest movement was especially remarkable because “in those days you didn’t have Twitter and Facebook; you had bullhorns and an occasional fax machine.”

He echoed the sentiment of Tiananmen leaders who testified Friday on the Hill that repression is getting worse in China.

“Now you not only lock up the Nobel Prize winner, but you lock up his sick wife, which I said in my testimony to Congress. You not only harass a blind dissident, but you punish his family. You not only lock up troublemakers, but you also lock up those who are defending them,” Lord said. “And now those who are being swept up because of the anniversary — and let’s hope they’re all released in a week or so — they’re not only being put under house arrest or detained, they’re being charged with crimes. So it’s very, very bleak.”

House leaders attended a Tiananmen Square remembrance last Thursday organized by Smith.

“They want us to forget all this.  But you cannot overcome the past by ignoring it, and so long as we stand together and never forget, the truth will always overcome the lie,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “…It’s been said many times, many ways, but the real enemy of democracy isn’t tyranny. It is apathy. It is forgetting.”

“How could it be, my colleagues, 25 years? A generation has gone by – we were promised so much that would happen, if we would just wait,” Pelosi said. “…We know that we would lose all moral authority to speak out about human rights any place else in the world if we did not speak out against human rights violations in China. Despite its size, despite being an economic giant, we still speak out together.”


Smith, generally regarded by his colleagues as one of the strongest members of Congress on human rights and even recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), stressed that lawmakers’ work is far from done.

“While some may prefer to look beyond the past or even trivialize the wanton slaughter by Chinese soldiers, the memory of the dead and wounded as well as the plight of the jailed and tortured requires us to honor them and respect their noble aspirations for fundamental freedoms,” he said.


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