Chinese Police Clamp Down on Graveside Memorials for Tiananmen Victims

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china-qingming-april-2014.jpg A man cleans the gravestone of his deceased relative at the Babaoshan cemetery in Beijing for the annual Qingming Festival on April 5, 2014.

Chinese authorities clamped down on activists commemorating victims of 1989 student-led pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square and other petitioners as the nation observed its annual grave-sweeping festival over the weekend.

Members of the Tiananmen Mothers advocacy group, which represents all victims of the crackdown who died or were maimed, told Hong Kong media they were prevented from traveling to the graves of their loved ones ahead of the Qingming holiday, which fell on Friday but is honored throughout the weekend.

Chinese authorities keep relatives of those who died in the 1989 military crackdown around Tiananmen Square under house arrest and close surveillance as the politically sensitive anniversary approaches each year, beginning ahead of the traditional Chinese grave-sweeping festival in April.

Political activists are typically also prevented from holding any kind of public memorial to mark the crackdown, in which the People's Liberation Army (PLA) used machine guns and tanks against unarmed protesters and hunger-striking students.

Tiananmen Mothers member Zhang Xianling said she had managed to evade police surveillance by pretending to "go to the bathroom" and travel together with her husband out to Beijing's Wan'an cemetery where her son Wang Nan is buried.

"After we swept my son's grave, we also bowed in front of the graves of other victims of the June 4 [incident]," she told Hong Kong's Cable TV.


Meanwhile, dozens of petitioners—ordinary Chinese who pursue long-running complaints against the ruling Chinese Communist Party—gathered outside Beijing's southern railway station on Friday, carrying banners commemorating activist Cao Shunli, who died on March 14 in police custody after her lawyers said she was denied medical treatment by her detention center.

And a group of 15 petitioners from the southwestern province of Sichuan succeeded in laying wreaths on the tombs of several revolutionary leaders in Beijing's Babaoshan crematorium, petitioner Xu Bicai said.

Many more had converged on Babaoshan with similar ideas, Xu told the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website.

"The police took away six bus-loads of petitioners from Baobaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery," he said.

In the eastern province of Shandong, police placed at least 10 rights activists under surveillance ahead of the festival.

'Normal memorial activity'

But more than 20 activists managed to evade state security police and arrive at Zhongshan Park in the provincial capital Jinan to commemorate late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, activists said.

But state security police snatched away their banner commemorating Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China after the 1911 revolution, before reluctantly allowing them to continue with the ceremony.

China's army of petitioners—many of whom are older people with little or no income who have pursued complaints about forced eviction, loss of farmland, or wrongful injury or death for many years to no avail—frequently use the image of revolutionary heroes and former leaders as an implied criticism of the current regime.

"They thought we were disturbing public order, but we hung in there after we put up the banner, because we weren't making a huge fuss, and we weren't disturbing social order," activist Li Hongwei told RFA on Saturday.

"This was a normal memorial activity; why shouldn't we be allowed to remember? As citizens, we should have that freedom," he said.

"After that, we bowed three times to Sun Yat-sen, and spoke briefly about his life."

Li said retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang had planned to attend the event, but was unable to leave his apartment, as he was being closely watched by at least 10 officers.

Repeated calls to Sun's home phone number and cell phone rang unanswered on Saturday.

Commemorations in Hong Kong

But while Beijing's censors typically muzzle any online or media discussion of the 1989 crackdown, Hong Kong has become one of the few Chinese cities in which large crowds are able to turn out to remember those who died.

Activists from the Tiananmen Mothers and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China held a memorial ceremony in the territory on Saturday to commemorate the dead of 1989.

Dozens of activists, many wearing June 4 campaign T-shirts, gathered to lay wreaths at a temporary memorial at Hong Kong's iconic harborside, each group processing to lay the wreath before bowing three times in respect.

"Twenty-five years after June 4, the causes of human rights, freedom, and democracy have seen no progress whatsoever under the Chinese Communist Party," Hong Kong legislator and labor activist Lee Cheuk-yan told the gathering.

"If anything, things are worse than they were in 1989."

Lee said this year's candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown would take as its theme "fight to the last to overturn the verdict on June 4."


However, there are signs that pro-Beijing political forces could be stepping up pressure on pro-democracy activists ahead of the highly sensitive anniversary.

The managers of a commercial building in Hong Kong's shopping district of Tsimshatsui have written to the Alliance to complain about a permanent museum dedicated to the June 4 incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that is housed in the block.

Lee told reporters the alliance's June Fourth Memorial Museum will open on April 20 as scheduled in spite of the letter, however.

He said the alliance received a legal letter from the owners' corporation of the building at the end of February, saying the museum didn't fit the building's commercial purpose, and could create "disturbance" on the premises.

But Lee said there appears to be no genuine legal basis to exclude the museum, which owns the 800-square-foot office space, as churches, charity organizations and other institutions typically rent space in similar buildings with no problem.

"We have consulted lawyers and there was no precedence for such problem to keep them out. So we are confident that we are legally grounded," Lee told local media on Monday.

The museum had been temporarily housed in two locations, including the City University of Hong Kong, since 2012.


The number of people killed when People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and troops entered Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 remains a mystery.

Beijing authorities once put the death toll at "nearly 300,"  but the central government, which labelled the six weeks of pro-democracy protests a "counterrevolutionary uprising," has not issued an official toll or list of names.

The crackdown, which officials said in a news conference at the time was necessary to suppress a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," sparked a wave of international condemnation, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.

The Chinese Red Cross initially reported 2,600 deaths but quickly retracted its statement, while the Tiananmen Mothers says it has confirmed 186 deaths, although not all at the hands of the army.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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