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Tiananmen still potent

The body of a prominent human-rights activist was found hanging from a window in a Chinese hospital last week. Chinese authorities say he committed suicide. His family and supporters believe otherwise. 

Li Wangyang was not only blind and deaf; he could hardly walk unaided. The pictures circulating on the Internet showing a makeshift noose around his neck, and his feet touching the ground, raise questions about the official story even without the doubts expressed by friends and family who had no reason to suspect that he was contemplating suicide.

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But this is not just about the suspicious death of a human-rights campaigner, which prompted thousands of people to take to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to demand an independent inquiry. It is about the Chinese Communist Party’s absurd and implacable repression of the pro-reform activists who took part in the Tiananmen demonstrations, 23 years after they were brutally crushed on June 4, 1989.

Li mobilized Chinese labor unions in support of the student-led protests that filled the giant square in central Beijing for two months. After being arrested in 1989, he spent 22 years in prison. On the eve of his death, he had given an interview to a Hong Kong TV station in which he described the torture that left his sight and hearing impaired.

The shock waves from Tiananmen continue to reverberate for families of the activists who took part in what is officially described as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.” 

The father of one protester, Ya Weilin, a member of the Tiananmen Mothers group, which is seeking redress over the crackdown, took his life two weeks before the June 4 anniversary.

The main leaders of the Tiananmen protests are still in forced exile. As we saw with the recent departure of the blind “barefoot” lawyer Chen Guangcheng, that’s the preferred solution for the Chinese authorities when dealing with dissidents. 

But now, five of them have written an open letter asking to return home. (A sixth, the pasionaria of the Tiananmen demonstrations, Chai Ling, has discovered religion. In an anniversary blog post from her American exile she forgave those who ordered and carried out the massacre.)

The West should be demanding a full accounting of the 1989 massacre and the rehabilitation of the victims and the demonstration leaders. We should be standing up for the “universal human rights” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was talking about as recently as last Friday. We still don’t know exactly how many died in the military crackdown, discussion of which remains taboo in China, although it is estimated that hundreds were mown down by the People’s Liberation Army.

The former mayor of Beijing during the 1989 events, Chen Xitong, has recently published a book of interviews in which he says the bloodshed was “of course a tragedy that could have been avoided and should have been avoided” and that “nobody should have died if it had been handled properly.” The work has not, however, been published in mainland China. It is a sign of the continued potency of Tiananmen that haunts the ruling party.

The Chinese Communist Party still clings to the lesson of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose loosening of political freedoms within the one-party state led to the collapse of the Communist empire.

Yet there is another recent lesson for the Chinese leadership, which of course explains Beijing’s total opposition to any armed intervention in Syria, and its earlier concern about regime change in Libya. A regime that uses tanks against its own people loses the moral right to govern.

Anne Penketh is former diplomatic editor of The Independent and a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. She is Washington Program Director of the British American Security Information Council. Follow her on Twitter at @annepenketh.