Washington, DC – Yan Xiong, a political dissident, escaped from China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. He reached the shores of the United States, seeking political asylum. Subsequently, he served in the U.S. Army. Then, last year, Yan decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from New York. But as he began his political campaign, a malicious campaign started by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to smear Yan’s character with the help of US-based agents. That is the crux of a recent charge sheet filed by the Justice Department in a court in New York. In it, prosecutors narrate several attempts to spy on or intimidate dozens of Chinese American dissidents and others living all over the United States.
These incidents clearly show the CCP’s attempts to silence its critics within China or abroad, 34 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The protests, which began on April 15, 1989, culminated in June when the CCP imposed martial law and ordered 300,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to occupy parts of central Beijing and crush protests. But in doing so, the troops resorted to the gravest of crimes and brute use of force.
PLA ruthlessly neutralized the protesters through a bloody crackdown over the next few days. According to British sources, estimates of the death toll vary, but at least 10,000 civilians, mostly students, were killed by the PLA in the crackdown. It was the largest such demonstration in China’s modern history. It shook the CCP to the core, forcing then-leader Deng Xiaoping to tighten the CCP’s grip over the country and purge many party leaders deemed ‘responsible’ for the chaos.
In the last three decades, human rights organizations have ardently put pressure on China by highlighting the fateful events of Tiananmen. Amnesty International calls the massacre China’s ‘indelible stain,’ while Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for China to acknowledge and take responsibility for the killings.
It is no surprise that whenever the anniversary of the massacre approaches, the CCP becomes edgy, detains human rights activists, and censors discussions of the crackdown. Moreover, it has also used its tech lead to erase online mentions of events related to the massacre. For example, its search engine algorithms crawl politically sensitive search terms on the Chinese internet or redirect users toward other subjects. In addition, video recognition software can detect images related to the Square and its bloody history. For the last few years, authorities have even banned commemorations of the occasion in Hong Kong and Macau, indicating the CCP’s uneasiness.
According to Ian Bremmer, on the rare occasion that the CCP officials have spoken about the massacre to justify China’s crackdown on the student protestors. For instance, in June 2019, China’s Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe stated that the “central government needed to quell (the protests), which was the correct policy.” He added that “China has enjoyed stability, and if you visit China, you can understand that part of history.”
So naturally, the CCP would also like to ensure that dissenting voices abroad don’t speak about the massacre. According to Representative Christopher Smith, Beijing has used the blacklist, intimidation, repression, and the lure of the Chinese market to stifle the discussion of the violence and oppression of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The efforts to honey trap Yan Xiong and ensure his fall from grace are part of these efforts. In his case, the Department of Justice has charged five people with conspiring to act as agents of the Chinese government, harassment conspiracy, or other criminal offenses. According to the Department, agents of China’s Ministry of State Security tried to hire a private investigator to “create” a sex scandal and possibly physically harm Yan. But Yan is not alone and, in fact, fortunate to be alive. Over the last few years, many pro-democracy and human rights activists have disappeared from the public scene.
The department has also charged another agent who ran the New York-based Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang Memorial Foundation. In this pro-democracy group, he allegedly used this position to gather information on US-based dissidents for the Chinese government.
As the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approaches, it is clear that today’s China closely resembles the China of 1989, where protests are stifled, and free speech still is a dream. The CCP may be in charge of the affairs but is highly wary of any disturbance or chaos. It is still anxious about the civil war and any unrest which could derail China, just as the events of June 1989 created a sense of instability in the eyes of the Chinese leadership. Its approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic disturbance is a testimony that for Communist China, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Pia Sherman is a freelance writer. Views expressed are solely of the author.