China: Tiananmen Square 25 years on

25 years after the brutal suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square and other cities on 4 June 1989, in which an estimated 2,000 unarmed individuals were killed by Chinese troops, the climate for free expression in China remains stifling and scores of writers are being arrested

‘Tiananmen Square casts a long shadow on freedom of expression in China,’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. ‘Not only is the tragedy itself a suppressed piece of history in China, but many of those who protested twenty-five years ago are still being imprisoned, harassed and silenced.’

The worldwide association of writers,  of which English PEN is the founding member,  is calling for the release of all writers in prison in China who are held solely on account of the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association or assembly, and an end to the harassment, trials and censorship of those who dare to speak out.

Writers held include 70-year-old journalist Gao Yu, who was arrested on 24 April 2014 and held incommunicado for two weeks before the authorities disclosed, in a televised ‘confession’ feared to have been made under duress, that she was being held on suspicion of ‘leaking state secrets abroad’.

Gao Yu was first arrested on 3 June 1989 for writing an article in support of the pro-democracy protests. She was one of the first people to be detained in the crackdown on the 4 June movement, and spent a year in jail, followed by a further five and a half years behind bars from 1993-1999.

According to PEN’s research, there are currently at least 40 writers and journalists detained in China, a number which has remained largely unchanged for a quarter of a century. Sentences range from three to 20 years, with the majority of cases serving sentences of over five years. Prison conditions are poor, with high levels of ill-health, a lack of access to medical care and family visits, and widespread torture or other ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners.

The legislation used to silence dissent has evolved over time. Notably, the rise in the use of the internet and corresponding government surveillance and suppression of electronic media has led to a corresponding rise of bloggers and social media users being arrested – most held under subversion or state secrets laws.

Members of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) are amongst those to be targeted. The former ICPC President and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo has been behind bars since 8 December 2008, serving an 11-year sentence. Meanwhile, his wife Liu Xia has been held incommunicado under strict house arrest at her home in Beijing since 18 October 2010 and is denied any contact with the outside world. Concerns for her welfare and psychological integrity are acute. Her situation highlights the increasingly widespread use of extra-judicial or ‘soft’ detention, in which government critics are subject to arbitrary arrest without charge, abduction, assault and intimidation.

Separatist struggles in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang place writers at risk of arrest. Uyghur writer, academic and Uyghur PEN member Ilham Tohti was arrested on 15 January 2014 in Beijing and formally charged with ‘splittism’ on 20 February 2014, amid a crackdown on members of China’s Uyghur minority who are critical of the government. Ilham Tohti has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights since he established Uyghur Online in 2006. If convicted, he could face life in prison, or even the death penalty.


There are a number of ways you can show your support for colleagues at risk in China:

  • Send letters of appeal to the Chinese authorities on behalf of Gao Yu, Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia and Ilham Tohti;
  • Send messages of support and books to the many writers currently in prison or at risk. Email for details;
  • Share details of PEN’s current cases of concern via social media;
  • Come along to one of several ‘Reclaiming Tiananmen‘ events taking place this week.

Reclaiming Tiananmen 2014

Exhibition: “64+25=89”
Daily until 5 June. 9am – 9pm weekdays; 9am – 5pm Saturday
Free admission
The Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA

Photographs from the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989.

Panel Discussion: “Reclaiming Tiananmen”
Tuesday 3 June, 7pm – 9pm
Free, reservation required
The Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA

A discussion on the impact and legacy of the Tiananmen protests and extent to which the landscape for pro-democracy dissent has changed in China over the past 25 years. Speakers include survivors from Tiananmen Square 1989, young activists born in 1989 and representatives of Tibetan and Uyghur communities.

Candlelit Vigil
4 June, 7pm – 10pm. All welcome
Outside the Chinese Embassy, 49-59 Portland Place, London W1B 1JL

A candlelit vigil to remember all those who died, were injured or imprisoned when Chinese armed forces stormed Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

‘Reclaiming Tiananmen’ is hosted and organised by our friends at Amnesty International UK, Friends of Tiananmen Mothers UK, Tibet Society and Chinese Uyghur Tibetan Solidarity UK.

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