Thirty Years After Tiananmen Massacre, China Remains a ‘Surveillance State’

Religious freedom is among the areas that have deteriorated since then, according to experts who monitor human-rights violations there.

Above, people hold candles as they take part in a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park June 4 in Hong Kong. Cities held events around the world on June 4 to remember those who died when Chinese troops cracked down on pro-democracy protesters 30 years ago and killed from hundreds to thousands in Beijing. Below, Chinese onlookers run away as a soldier threatens them with a gun on June 5, 1989, as tanks took position at Beijing's key intersections next to the diplomatic compound.
Above, people hold candles as they take part in a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park June 4 in Hong Kong. Cities held events around the world on June 4 to remember those who died when Chinese troops cracked down on pro-democracy protesters 30 years ago and killed from hundreds to thousands in Beijing. Below, Chinese onlookers run away as a soldier threatens them with a gun on June 5, 1989, as tanks took position at Beijing's key intersections next to the diplomatic compound. (photo: Photos by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images and Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

The Tiananmen Square protests, which took place 30 years ago today and led to a brutal and deadly crackdown of scores of pro-democracy activists by the Chinese authorities, could not happen in today’s Beijing.

That’s because China no longer has “freedom of assembly,” said Reggie Littlejohn, the founder of the organization Women’s Rights Without Frontiers that protects women in China. Currently, any two or more people who do protest there are “detained immediately.”

Since the 1989 massacre, human rights in the vast Asian country “have not improved but deteriorated,” Littlejohn said in a statement, adding that the country has become “a surveillance state,” where technology is being used as an instrument of “repression.”   

Part of that repression includes government attempts to erase the Chinese people’s memory of the government crackdown, which killed hundreds, if not several thousands. References to it are censored on social media, news and history books, in what has become known as the “great forgetting.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, stressed on Twitter that the massacre is “not erasable” and that the Chinese people are “still waiting for the apology to compensate this massacre of the China government.”  

But that apology is not expected anytime soon, as the government continues to clamp down on various freedoms in a bid to control the population in China and to ensure the survival of the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing has “ramped up” its digital-surveillance program “on a massive scale,” said Steven Mosher, an authority on China and the president of the Population Research Institute. He told the Register May 21 that, since 2012, it has run a “DNA-collection program,” beginning with the oppressed Uyghur minority and then extending it to the rest of the country.

“This is part of the surveillance state that China is setting up,” explained Mosher, who, in 1979, became the first American research student allowed to carry out anthropological research in China following the Cultural Revolution. “For the first time in the world, we’re seeing a high-tech digital dictatorship which will, at the end of the day, be able to monitor on a 24/7 basis where everybody is, what everybody’s doing.”

The goal of the state “is, of course, to stay in power,” Mosher said, using people’s DNA to trace them and track them down if they do something the government dislikes. In the U.S., DNA samples are taken for criminals, he pointed out. “In China, it’s nationwide.”

He also believes, following a recent hacking of a U.S. government personnel database, that China is already setting up surveillance beyond its borders, including a database that includes “tens of millions of Americans,” and is using companies such as Huawei to do it.

The surveillance crackdown also makes use of facial-recognition technology, allowing the government to track people even without a cellphone. “It’s Orwellian in a sense that even George Orwell would never have imagined,” said Mosher.


Other Human-Rights Violations

But China experts say this is just one area of human-rights violations that have grown up since the June 4 atrocity of 1989.

The economy has boomed since that time, a “fruit of Tiananmen,” according to Father Bernardo Cervellera. In a June 4 editorial, the editor of Asia News wrote that, “in order to hide the military’s blood-stained hands,” the government of then-President Deng Xiaoping rolled out economic reforms to “repurchase” respect from the population. “The wealth was the opium that helped forget the massacre,” Father Cervellera wrote.

The authorities found a willing collaborator in the Clinton administration, which hoped that, by de-linking U.S. conferral of “most-favored nation” status from China’s human-rights transgressions, trade would increase and the country would eventually embrace Western values and human rights. “That policy has proven to be an epic fail,” said Littlejohn.

According to the 2018 Congressional-Executive Commission annual report on China, more than 1 million Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minorities currently suffer in “political re-education” concentration camps; prisoners of conscience and religious believers are being executed to harvest their organs; the country’s media are completely controlled; and Christians continue to be persecuted, including churches bulldozed, shrines torn down and priests jailed in the shadow of a secret, controversial Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops signed last September.

And according to Littlejohn, China’s “war against women” continues, as the Communist Party functions as “womb police,” declaring “life or death over every pregnancy in the land.” Coercive population control has led to the loss of 400 million lives, Littlejohn estimates, in addition to the 65 million killed by Mao Zedong’s creation of “socialist” China. “This is the hallmark of communist regimes,” she said, “the peacetime killing of their own citizens.” 

It’s a coercion that began under the one-child policy, introduced in 1979 as a population-control program, and continues under the nation’s now-two-child policy that came into force in 2015, as it remains illegal for single women to have babies in China, and a third child for a family is “still illegal.”


The Widows’ Plight

Littlejohn told the Register May 14 that her organization, which for several years has run a “Save a Girl” campaign to save babies from sex-selective abortion, has now launched a second one called “Save a Widow.”

This is in response to what Littlejohn calls a “profoundly sad situation” whereby the one-child policy has left many of the burgeoning elderly population destitute, especially widows. Most of them live in rural areas and struggle to survive because the one child they may have raised has moved to urban areas for work, and they have no extended family to rely on. Such women receive just $20 a month from the government.

China has the “highest female suicide rate in the world,” Littlejohn said, adding that, according to one U.S. State Department estimate, around 590 women a day kill themselves in China, most of them in the countryside.

“I call widows the invisible victims of the one-child policy because they’re so destitute and desperate,” Littlejohn explained. She recalled that June 23 is International Day of the Widow and said her campaigns are the only ones actively saving girls and widows in China. Many of those who have been helped have been brought to the faith through the work of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, she said.

Another scourge that has grown up in the past 30 years is human trafficking and sexual slavery, due to the gender imbalance exacerbated by the one-child policy, which sparked sex-selective abortion and sometimes infanticide of baby girls because of China’s deeply entrenched cultural preference for male children. 

Littlejohn said this has resulted in 30-40 million men now of marriageable age who will never find wives, leading to “bachelor villages” that are a “recipe for social unrest.” It has also led to women being trafficked to fill the gap and making China a “Tier 3” group in human trafficking — the “worst level,” according to Littlejohn, and applicable where “substantial trafficking is taking place and the government is not doing enough to combat it.”


Tiananmen and Religious Repression

The extent of government oppression and human-rights violations makes many believe the Vatican’s agreement with China came at the wrong time. Since Tiananmen, “hardliners have been in charge, and nobody has been as hardline as Xi Jinping is now,” said Mosher. “China is moving decisively in the wrong direction.”

Father Cervellera attributed the current crackdown on religion directly to Tiananmen, which, he said, “torpedoed esteem” for the Chinese Communist Party and caused many Chinese to seek meaning in religion rather than the state. Beijing’s subsequent oppression of all religions is a “sign” of how the party will wage war against anything that obscures its “absolute power,” he said.

Mosher said he would have supported the Vatican’s line regarding its 2018 agreement — that criticism of it is to be expected but China will enter eventually into dialogue with the world — back in 1980. But the Tiananmen atrocity showed the reformers had “lost decisively,” he said. And even though he believes the Chinese capable of self-government, he sees the Chinese Communist Party as “determined not to allow that to happen.”

The current way of governing runs deep in Chinese culture, he said, and long predates Marxism-Leninism. It is a “form of bureaucratic totalitarianism that was invented in China 2,500 years ago and is called legalism,” Mosher explained. He further sees such a “terrifying” tyrannical form of government worsening as “a lot of vulnerabilities” in China’s economy, including escalating debt, hit home.

Littlejohn said she is “devastated” by the Vatican-China agreement, not least because its provisions remain secret, allowing the Chinese authorities to manipulate it in their favor to oppress Catholics. She disagrees with the Vatican’s line, and said one has to “start out in the right direction if you want to end up in the right place.” Instead, she believes it is going in “completely the wrong direction,” as Beijing uses the agreement to “decimate Marian shrines and persecute people.”

“How do you start out in this terrible direction with this silence from the Vatican?” Littlejohn asked. “The persecution just keeps getting worse and worse.”

The Holy See is unlikely to budge from its current position, however, continuing to hope that greater engagement with the West will lead to harmonious relations between Beijing and Rome and an eventual end to the persecution of the Church in China.

Today it issued no statement recalling the many pro-democracy protesters who stood up to tyranny and lost their lives in Tiananmen Square three decades ago.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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