Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday met with survivors and victims of the 1989 massacre that ended weeks of student-led protest on China's Tiananmen Square.
Thirty years after the People's Liberation Army (PLA) used tanks, armored cars, and machine guns to clear Beijing of protesters on the night of June 3 and the days that followed, Tsai marked the occasion by meeting with former student leaders and victims of the crackdown, a first in the democratic island's history.
Tsai said she was happy to see Taiwan's New School for Democracy, founded by former student leader-turned-history lecturer Wang Dan, host a symposium marking the 30th anniversary of the massacre.
"China seems to have been cracking down more and more lately, and not just on its own people," Tsai told the group. "Freedom of expression, even in a democratic society like Taiwan, has been under huge pressure from external interference, and everyone is pretty clear about where that interference is coming from."
She warned that all liberal democracies are now facing the same problem, because they allow free speech, and are therefore more susceptible to outside interference.
"The latest technology and commercialized methods are also having an impact on the marketplace of ideas," Tsai said. "We have in-depth knowledge of all of this from recent experience."
No grey areas
Tsai said that while she wants regional peace and stability, there were "no grey areas" when it came to Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent insistence that Taiwan "unify" with China.
"This is not a proposal that we, as a free and democratic country, can ever accept," said Tsai, reiterating her response to Xi's Jan. 2 speech titled "Letter to our Taiwan Compatriots," in which he refused to rule out the use of military force to annex the island.
Tsai has repeatedly replied that Taiwan, which has never been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, refuses to give up its sovereignty as the 1911 Republic of China to be "unified" with China under the "one country, two systems" framework applied to the former colonial cities of Hong Kong and Macau.
"We don't want any misunderstandings to arise because Taiwan's president hasn't spoken clearly enough," she said on Thursday.
Veteran 1989 democracy activist Fang Zheng, who lost both legs after being crushed by a tank during the crackdown, is currently in Taipei to attend the Symposium, and was among the group that met with Tsai.
"As someone who lived through the Tiananmen massacre and who is an actual victim, I can say that President Tsai ... has never forgotten what happened on June 4, 30 years ago," Fang said. "I found that very moving."
Taiwan as example
Fang said many veterans of the 1989 protests look to Taiwan as an example of what may be possible one day in China.
"We don't want to see democracy rolled back in Taiwan. We want to see it continue to move forward and get better and better, and take the rest of the Chinese world with it," he said.
Tseng Chien-yuan, who chairs the New School for Democracy board of directors, said the group was received in an official, formal capacity with all the protocol of a sovereign state.
"We had really been hoping for a clear message from the president ahead of the 30th anniversary about June 4 and the democracy movement in China," Tseng said.
"We never thought that the president would actually receive us at the Presidential Palace," he said.
Several veterans of the 1989 protests, including U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao, Zhou Fengsuo, who heads the rights group Humanitarian China and scholar Wu Renhua were in the delegation that met with Tsai.
Teng said Tsai had shared their view that it is in Taiwan's interest to show visible support for the democracy movement in China, in the face of a growing threat from Beijing.
"President Tsai agreed that Taiwan should adopt this strategy, because without democratization in China, Taiwan can never enjoy genuine security," Teng said. "We said we hoped that Taiwan would do more to support democracy and human rights in China," he said.
Teng said he had also asked Tsai to make a strong statement condemning the mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, something that her aides had said they would discuss privately.
"She said ... that Taiwan's democracy and human rights were only won after a long period of resistance and struggle," Teng said. "So we can see that while President Tsai has certain realities to consider, she also very clearly recognized the need to promote human rights and democracy."
The New York-based group Human Rights in China (HRIC) said the Chinese government has never had to take responsibility for its crimes against its own people.
"Instead, it has engaged in a sustained campaign to rub [the Tiananmen massacre] out of Chinese history, in efforts to force those who saw and suffered it to forget, and the younger people to never learn about it," HRIC said in a statement ahead of the anniversary.
"The lawless violence of June Fourth—and the government impunity—exists very much in the present, and has been intensified under Xi Jinping," the group said.
HRIC executive director Sharon Hom hit out at the international community for its failure to hold Beijing to account during the past three decades.
"In exchange for trade benefits and entry into China’s vast labor and consumer markets, governments and foreign companies conveniently believed that China’s increased integration into the international community would help it democratize and play by international rules,"
Hom said in the statement.
"Instead, in amassing enormous economic and political clout, China is changing those rules and aggressively promoting its own models of human rights, development, and democracy that are at odds with universal values," she said.
"The Chinese party-state has learned the lesson of 1989: that it can get away with murder," Hom warned. "So now it is accelerating efforts to legalize repression and upgrade its surveillance and social control capabilities to equip a powerful digital authoritarianism."
Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jia Ao for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.