With the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, it might seem that the anniversary of Tiananmen in 2022 would not be very much noticed. It was not so.
by Ruth Ingram
A shout went up from the crowd as a giant model tank was raised above heads and manhandled towards the barricaded gates of London’s Chinese Embassy.
Police took a few minutes to realize what was happening as two Hong Kong protesters prostrated themselves under it as if dead. The evening traffic was stopped in its tracks. It was a fitting and poignant reminder of the murderous events 33 years ago in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
In front of the Chinese Embassy in London, the roll of honor was called out slowly and ceremoniously. Three hundred and ten names of some of the Tiananmen fallen were remembered and candles lit at dusk to commemorate June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing. One single window showed signs of life in the building opposite, perhaps monitoring the events of the evening that flagged a turning point for democracy in China when an estimated 10,000 of their own people were mown down in cold blood.
London was peppered with Tiananmen anniversary rallies throughout the day. Against a backdrop of flags, parties, concerts and patriotic outfits celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s seventy year reign, thousands of protesters also found time to gather outside Downing Street, the seat of UK governance, around the iconic Piccadilly Circus Eros statue, and the Chinese Embassy itself, to protest the erosion of democracy around the world and the creeping influence of China and Russia.
Focussing on the atrocities meted out in Hong Kong, Tibet, and East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang), campaigners gathered in solidarity around the Ukrainian community, united in condemnation of the unilateral assault on democracy by Putin and a pledge of “limitless” allegiance to the dictator by China’s Xi Jinping.
As crowds gathered outside the embassy, a haunting recording reminded us of events of that day. Veteran BBC reporter Kate Adie was describing the carnage, and her own brush with death when a bullet grazed her arm, but fatally injured a nearby protester. Bodies had been piled up in a children’s hospital as doctors tried desperately to save the lives of the wounded. As she fled the armed assault, they begged her to tell the world what she had seen.
Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uyghur Congress in London, spoke of how only two days before the massacre she had been in Beijing, fired up by the heady excitement of the democracy movement. Only after she returned to her hometown in the far west of China’s Xinjiang region, did she hear of the killings. “Their only crime was to believe in a better future,” she said. “One in which they could exercise their basic freedoms, vote in fair elections, and read objective and honest news.” Her hopes were dashed as all longings for a “liberation movement” vanished with the crushing literally and figuratively of the student protesters.
The indifference of the international community at the time devastated her, as it does today when faced with the creeping annihilation of her own people. “The Uyghurs understand exactly what it means to plead for help from a world that does not want to listen,” she said, “For over five years now we have been demanding action on the ongoing genocide being perpetrated against our people by the Chinese government. Those of us in exile have watched helplessly as our homeland has been turned into a police state, children taken from their parents, our culture destroyed, our women forceable sterilized and millions of our fellow Uyghurs detained in concentration camps.”
She condemned the recent visit of UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet whose whistle stop visit to China evinced no criticism over Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, or Christian and other religious persecution, but merely praise for China’s “anti terrorism measures” and poverty reduction. Concerning Uyghur atrocities she added, “after decades of struggle and more than five years of genocide we deserve so much more from international institutions, and yet here we are once again demanding the bare minimum from those that pledge to protect communities like mine,” she said.
Rousing heartfelt speeches from community leaders, politicians and human rights groups suffused the protests, combined with poignant memories of June 4 from members of the Tiananmen Mothers group. Now most of them in their eighties, they recount events as if they were yesterday, when after fruitless, desperate searches for their children some as young as high school students, some found covered in blood in makeshift morgues, but others still lost to this day.
Benedict Rogers, of Hong Kong Watch, spoke of a greater danger in allowing China’s rise to go unchecked. The events of Tiananmen had provided a vivid and clear window into the “true character of the Chinese Communist Party,” that was capable of “turning its guns on its own people,” he said. “It is a regime that is criminal and we should stand up and call it out.” “This is a regime that has no respect at all for human liberty, human life or human dignity, and that is the case today just as it was then,” he warned.
Not content only with repressing those within its own borders, the threats reach beyond to Myanmar, North Korea, Taiwan and to countries around the globe where it silences critics and opposes dissent, he said. “The CCP represents a hatred of freedom, a threat to life and an assault on human dignity and repression that all of us should continue to fight.” “We must build a united front to stand against China’s United front,” he urged.
“The world should beware of alliances such as those between Putin and the promised ‘limitless partnership’ of Xi Jinping, he said, citing Putin’s war as that of pitting dictatorship against democracy.” Applauding the courage of “tank man,” a student who had faced up an oncoming tank and brought the column to a halt, he described the people of Ukraine, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans and Hong Kongers, as modern day “tank men,” who should be supported.
“Let’s keep up the fight for freedom!” he urged.