35 years after China's Tiananmen Square massacre: Why we must never forget

The voices of the brave individuals who perished 35 years ago in the Tiananmen Square massacre continue to echo across our collective conscience. 

On that day, the People’s Liberation Army, acting on the orders of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership, murdered and injured thousands of peaceful pro-democracy protesters calling for political reform and an end to corruption.

The image of a lone protester using only his body to confront a row of tanks instantly became an enduring global symbol of resistance against oppression.

It was a day of immense tragedy, described as “a bloodbath in the center of a world capital.” The massacre shocked the international community, while also highlighting humanity’s innate desire for liberty. 

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However, compounding this tragedy is the fact that today, most people under the age of 40 in 21st-century China have little to no understanding of the events that unfolded on June 4, 1989. 

As reported by Radio Free Asia, educators are still forbidden from teaching about it, references to it are instantly removed from China’s heavily censored internet, and even public memorials for the victims are strictly prohibited.

There is one clear reason why the CCP has tried to wipe this dark chapter in China’s history from its public discourse: fear.

The shocking loss of innocent life, and the protests leading up to it, embody an unyielding demand for democracy and human rights – values that directly challenge President Xi Jinping’s centralized and increasingly oppressive rule. Xi and the rest of the CCP believe that by erasing the memory of Tiananmen, they can stifle dissent and silence calls for freedom – and, to some extent, they have succeeded.

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This is precisely why we cannot allow the memory of Tiananmen to fade away. It is why we have come together to amplify the voices demanding democracy for China, ensuring that the courage and sacrifices of those who stood against tyranny are never forgotten.

Nearly a decade before that fateful day, the United States began engaging in normalization efforts with Beijing, believing its integration into the global economy would lead to greater civic freedoms for its people. Both Democratic and Republican administrations achieved some success in deepening diplomatic ties and widening people-to-people contacts and exchange programs, and U.S. multinationals reaped significant profits in the China market.

But, they were wrong. The strategic gamble that economic growth and global integration would lead to improvements in human rights and neighborly relations was a fatal error, one whose victims are the Chinese people themselves.

In recent years, the Chinese government has only gotten worse. Xi has intensified his control over his people while extending his nation’s authoritarian reach across borders through brazen acts of transnational repression.

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He has helped turn his country into an Orwellian surveillance state with formidable economic and military power, trampling over human rights with impunity, bullying its neighbors, and presenting itself as an alternative to democratic governance. 

In response, the United States has more recently shifted its approach to addressing relations with China to prioritize national security over economic interests. We are diversifying our supply chains, limiting China’s access to technologies and products that could further enhance its economic and military capacity, and strengthening our defense alliances across the Indo-Pacific. While successive recent administrations have taken important action in this regard, it has often been the Congress that has led the way.

As we’ve learned before, this national security focus, while important, must not crowd out our focus on human rights. We must not overlook the aspirations and dignity of the Chinese people, who continue to strive for greater freedoms and economic opportunities in their own country. 

The concerns of the United States lie squarely with Xi and his government, not the people of China, and we must continue our staunch support for them in their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Doing so is both a moral obligation and a strategic necessity for building stable international relations and bolstering our national security.

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Our commitment to human rights around the world only holds weight when we boldly denounce violations wherever and whenever they occur, and take action. By uniting with a resolute voice at home, and drawing wisdom and strength from the lessons of history, we can pave the way for a more dignified and prosperous future for all people across the globe. 

This unity of purpose should clearly convey our nation’s support for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for freedom against oppressive regimes, such as that of Xi, and forcefully condemn efforts to censor information, rewrite history, and suppress the truth about mass atrocities and crimes against humanity.

This is precisely what I aim to achieve by introducing a bipartisan resolution honoring the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

This legislation represents a united call for justice, not only for the tragic events that transpired 35 years ago, but also for Beijing’s ongoing human rights abuses today, including the brutal repression of Tibetan and Uyghur communities. It highlights the systematic erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and condemns Xi’s widespread use of transnational repression, which targets Chinese diaspora communities and activists globally. 

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By shedding light on these issues, we can underscore the urgent need to hold the People’s Republic of China (PRC) accountable for its human rights abuses and to counter Xi’s attempts to undermine international norms and threaten global security.

In commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre, we honor the courageous spirit of those who embody what Nobel laureate and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo called “the enduring human quest for freedom,” be it in China or anywhere else in the world. 

We see that spirit in the people of Taiwan and their newly elected president, Dr. Lai Ching-te, who share the very same democratic aspirations as the thousands of peaceful Chinese protesters who were killed and injured on that tragic day in 1989. 

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We ask our fellow Americans to join us in paying tribute to the heroes of Tiananmen Square by recognizing the sacrifices they made in pursuit of liberty, dignity, and self-determination.

Together, through our shared support for democracy and human rights, we can give voice to those silenced by the PRC and ensure that the legacy of Tiananmen continues to inspire generations to come.

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