25 Years From Tiananmen, China Strives To Keep Activists Silent

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and human rights observers say that Chinese authorities are cracking down more than ever on activists and intellectuals. Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, discusses the dubious anniversary and the harsh response that has followed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In China, the upcoming 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square has prompted what human rights observers say is an unprecedented crackdown on activists and intellectuals. Dozens of people have been detained, put under house arrest, or are reported as missing. Chinese authorities are clamping down on anything approaching dissent or even discussion of the events of June 4th, 1989 when hundreds - some say thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed. Maya Wang has been tracking the crackdown. She's a researcher with Human Rights Watch, based in Hong Kong. Ms. Wang, welcome to the program.

MAYA WANG: Hi. Hi Melissa.

BLOCK: The Tiananmen Square protests and the massacre that followed have always been an extremely sensitive topic for Chinese authorities - a taboo, really. Is the crackdown that you're seeing now going well beyond what you have seen before?

WANG: Yes, definitely. I think in the past years usually the government would put a few people under house arrest, but this year we are seeing the response involving a lot more people than before. And also that the particular measure being taken right now is criminal detention, and that is much more coercive than just restricting people's movement in their homes.

BLOCK: Now, many of those who are being silenced have been charged with creating a public disturbance or picking quarrels. Translate that for us. What does that mean?

WANG: Unfortunately, I think a lot of lawyers would tell you that they don't really know what that means anymore because that usually - in Chinese law that means, you know for example, if you pick a fight in a public space that would be creating a disturbance. But the law, that crime in particular, has been stretched quite widely to include all kinds of peaceful behaviors.

BLOCK: In private, you're saying. This is not anything like going to Tiananmen Square and hoisting a banner.

WANG: No, and in fact the detainees that are being taken into custody recently are kind of within the bounds of the Chinese Constitution. They are protected under the Chinese Constitution.

BLOCK: Are you also seeing, Maya, an even more intensive censorship of any references - any, even veiled references - to Tiananmen on the Internet?

WANG: Yeah, the government has been quite effective in cleansing the Internet. And as a result of that, netizens have used clever ways to refer to June four without being censored.

BLOCK: You're saying netizens - citizens of the Internet.

WANG: Yes, correct. So, for example, they refer to the date June four as May 35th.

BLOCK: Four days after the end of May, in other words.

WANG: Yeah, exactly. So, these kind of veiled references have also been blocked.

BLOCK: Well on June fourth itself, next Wednesday, do you expect there will be any visible sign in China of the anniversary - the 25th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen square - that you will have any sense of what happened on that day?

WANG: I would expect no, zero, because the government is on very high alert both in the actual Tiananmen square and on the Internet. The only hint that the massacre took place would be in Hong Kong, where thousands and tens of thousands of people will be gathering on June four to commemorate the massacre.

BLOCK: And what's your expectation for the people who have been detained, arrested, gone missing, once the anniversary has passed? Would you expect them to be released or no?

WANG: That's kind of like the million dollar question because in the past we expected that people would be released after June four, but because of the fact that the political situation has deteriorated - or the political freedoms have deteriorated over the past year - some of the people might be held beyond June four and possibly prosecuted afterwards.

BLOCK: Maya Wang is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. She's based in Hong Kong. Maya, thanks so much.

WANG: Thanks for having me.

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