Ng Yik-tung, Sing Man and Lu Xi | Radio Free Asia
Thirty years after a massacre that ended the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, a victims group has penned a public letter to China’s leaders during an annual session of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, calling on them to tell the truth about the student-led nationwide movement and its bloody aftermath.
“Thirty years ago, heavily armed troops imposing martial law slaughtered unarmed students and citizens with machine guns and tanks,” said the Tiananmen Mothers group’s open letter, timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC).
“But ever since, the authorities have been rewriting history.”
Weeks of student-led mass protests on Tiananmen Square, symbolised by the “Goddess of Democracy” effigy, were styled a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” and “political turmoil” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party after late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping sent in the tanks.
Ever since they lost loved ones in the bloodshed, the letter said, the group’s members have been among the most surveilled citizens in China, often kept under house arrest during politically sensitive times, and followed by police.
Some have been held in criminal detention with handcuffs, the letter said.
The Tiananmen Mothers have written to the NPC almost annually in recent years in a bid to reopen public debate on the bloodshed, which remains a taboo topic in China.
Tiananmen Mothers spokeswoman You Weijie said the regime in power today, under the indefinite presidency of Xi Jinping, is essentially the same one that ordered the troops to fire on unarmed civilians in 1989.
“There shouldn’t be any relationship between today’s government and what happened 30 years ago, but it’s the same party in power,” You told RFA on Thursday.
“The current government has a duty to offer an explanation to its own citizens, and to us, for the tragedy that took place back then,” she said.
“They should pursue responsibility, offer compensation, and tell the real truth about what happened,” You said. “They can’t evade these three demands any longer: they should respond.”
Tiananmen Mothers activist Zhang Xianling, who lost her 19-year-old son during the crackdown, said she had always imagined the government would relent and rehabilitate the victims and their families.
“I never thought that this would still be unresolved, 30 years on,” Zhang told RFA. “Even under the Chinese imperial dynasties, we never saw the rulers sending regular troops in to kill their own civilians and students for demonstrating in peace time.”
“And yet they have evaded this reality for 30 years now,” said Zhang, who still doesn’t know whether her son Wang Nan died instantly after being shot on a street to the south of Tiananmen Square, or whether soldiers prevented an ambulance from taking him for emergency treatment.
“They daren’t face up to it,” she said. “All it tells us is that they’re weak and terrified.”
But she added: “The Tiananmen Mothers will keep going with this, even if only one of us remains. One day, the truth will come out.”
Previous letters from the Tiananmen Mothers have called on the NPC to overturn the official verdict of “counterrevolutionary rebellion” passed on the student-led pro-democracy movement, to compensate victims’ families, and to publish official documents from the time, including full details of deaths and injuries.
The group has been writing to the NPC for more than 20 years, but say they have never had any kind of reply; only police restrictions.
The death toll from the night of June 3-4, 1989, when PLA tanks and troops entered Beijing, opening fire on unarmed civilians, remains unknown to this day.
While the Chinese government once put the death toll at “nearly 300,” it has never issued an official toll or list of names.
A 2009 map published by the Tiananmen Mothers listed more than 250 names garnered from confirmed eyewitness accounts and hospital records of those known to have died in the days after June 3, but it is unlikely to be an exhaustive account of casualties.
‘Spare no one’
After decades of secrecy and suppression of public debate on the massacre by the Chinese government, a series of recently released official documents have provided several harrowing and bloody accounts of what happened on the streets of Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989 and in the days that followed.
Diplomatic archives declassified by the U.K. government in 2017 described troops of the PLA’s 27th army as being ordered to “spare no-one” as they used dum-dum bullets, automatic weapons, and armored vehicles to carry out mass killings in Beijing.
One document detail how troops from the northeastern city of Shenyang were first sent in unarmed to disperse the crowd, followed up by a fully armed 27th Army that rampaged through the city killing civilians and other soldiers alike, and disposing of large amounts of human remains through crushing and incineration.
And in 2015, a trove of diplomatic cables unearthed from Canadian archives gave a rare glimpse of the horror of Beijing-based diplomats who witnessed the bloodshed, often first hand.
One of the cables described the crackdown as “savage,” while others cited harrowing interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses as the army drove columns of tanks into the heart of Beijing and fired automatic weapons at unarmed civilians.
The documents also describe pitched battles between “enraged” but unarmed civilians and fully armed troops in the western suburb of Muxidi, and Shilipu, to the east of the diplomatic quarter in Jianguomenwai.