The United States has added its voice to international calls for China's communist-led government to give a full public accounting of those who were killed, detained or went missing during the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
In a bold statement from Washington to mark the 29th anniversary of a bloody crackdown that left hundreds — some say thousands — dead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Chinese authorities to release “those who have been jailed for striving to keep the memory of Tiananmen Square alive; and to end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.”
To this day, open discussion of the topic remains forbidden in China and the families of those who lost loved ones continue to face oppression. Chinese authorities have labeled the protests a counter-revolutionary rebellion and repeatedly argued that a clear conclusion of the events was reached long ago.
In an annual statement on the tragedy, the group Tiananmen Mothers urged President Xi Jinping in an open letter to “re-evaluate the June 4th massacre” and called for an end to their harassment.
"Each year when we would commemorate our loved ones, we are all monitored, put under surveillance, or forced to travel” to places outside of China’s capital, the letter said. The advocacy group Human Rights in China released the open letter from the Tiananmen Mothers ahead of the anniversary.
"No one from the successive governments over the past 29 years has ever asked after us, and not one word of apology has been spoken from anyone, as if the massacre that shocked the world never happened," the letter said.
In his statement, Pompeo also said that on the anniversary “we remember the tragic loss of innocent lives,” adding that as Liu Xiaobo wrote in his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech, “the ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest.”
Liu was unable to receive his Nobel prize in person in 2010 and died in custody last year. The dissident writer played an influential role in the Tiananmen protests and was serving an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power when he passed.
At a regular press briefing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States over the statement on Tiananmen.
“The United States year in, year out issues statements making 'gratuitous criticism' of China and interfering in China’s internal affairs,” Hua said. "The U.S. Secretary of State has absolutely no qualifications to demand the Chinese government do anything," she added.
In a statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China like many websites, Hu Xijin, the editor of the party-backed Global Times, called the statement a "meaningless stunt."
In another post he said: “what wasn't achieved through a movement that year will be even more impossible to be realized by holding whiny commemorations today.”
Commemorations for Tiananmen are being held across the globe to mark the anniversary and tens of thousands are expected to gather in Hong Kong, the only place in China such large-scale public rallies to mark the incident can be held.
Exiled Tiananmen student protest leader Wu’Er Kaixi welcomed the statement from Pompeo.
However, he added that over the past 29 years western democracies appeasement of China has nurtured the regime into an imminent threat to freedom and democracy.
“The world bears a responsibility to urge China, to press on the Chinese regime to admit their wrongdoing, to restore the facts and then to console the dead,” he said. “And ultimately to answer the demands of the protesters 29 years ago and put China on the right track to freedom and democracy.”
Wu’er Kaixi fled China after the crackdown and now resides in Taiwan where he is the founder of Friends of Liu Xiaobo. The group recently joined hands with several other non-profit organizations and plans to unveil a sculpture in July — on the anniversary of his death — to commemorate the late Nobel laureate. The sculpture will be located near Taiwan's iconic Taipei 101 skyscraper.
In Taiwan, the self-ruled democracy that China claims is a part of its territory, political leaders from both sides of the isle have also urged China’s communist leaders to face the past.
On Facebook, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen noted that it was only by facing up to its history that Taiwan has been able to move beyond the tragedies of the past.
“If authorities in Beijing can face up to the June 4th incident and acknowledge that at its roots it was a state atrocity, the unfortunate history of June 4th could become a cornerstone for China to move toward freedom and democracy," Tsai said.
Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the opposition Nationalist Party or KMT, who saw close ties with China while in office, also urged Beijing to face up to history and help heal families’ wounds.
"Only by doing this can the Chinese communists bridge the psychological gap between the people on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait and be seen by the world as a real great power," Ma said.