Today, Thursday, June 4, is the thirty-first anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in China. Most of the world knows what happened then, and knows what’s happening now in Hong Kong, but the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge the massacre and its continued trampling of basic human rights in the country. It’s important to mark today and remember that many individuals, not-for-profit groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China and around the world are still working to change the political, economic and social inequalities in that totalitarian country. As much as many of us think North America doesn’t struggle with injustice, the recent events in the U.S. have shown us that we also need to be accountable in upholding rights for all.
I did a brief stint in human rights work in 1999. During my undergrad studies at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, I took a human rights course taught by Dr. Marshall Conley. Dr. Conley is an esteemed human rights scholar and expert and the inspiration behind my decision to work at an NGO in 1999. Dr. Conley was placing interns in human rights organizations and offered me a position at the African Centre for Human Rights and Democracy Studies (ACDHRS) in The Gambia, West Africa.
I went to Gambia along with another Acadia graduate. I became the publications officer for the centre and my friend, a woman from New Brunswick, became the financial officer. We learned so much by working at ACDHRS and had the chance to go to Dakar, Senegal for a women’s conference on international human rights procedures for the promotion and protection of women’s rights in Africa. I was the rapporteur (person who reports on the proceedings) for one of the sessions and I heard many tales of horror and struggle. I also heard stories of triumph.
One woman’s father wouldn’t let her start her education when she was a child. At the age of seven, she decided to go herself. She was such a good student that the teachers and principal of the school went to her father and told him it was his daughter’s right to an education. He threw her birth certificate at them and disowned her. She continued going to school and is now a professional.
My work in human rights has given me insight with a recent memoir-writing project. I have just finished helping a Calgary woman with her story about her battle against the Chinese government, especially its legal system. Karen Patterson was living in China in 2010 when her husband, Chinese artist Wu Yuren, disappeared. The book, TAKING ON CHINA: How I Freed My Husband from Jail, focuses on Karen’s fight to get him released.
Wu Yuren had been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and was also involved in asking for the authorities to fairly compensate artists who had their property taken. The artists, including Wu Yuren, had lived and/or worked in arts communities and had their homes and studios snatched and then razed by greedy developers. When the government did nothing about it and wouldn’t listen to the calls for compensation, the artists felt they had to do something drastic. That was why, in 2010, Wu Yuren and others marched on Chang’an Avenue, the road to Tiananmen Square.
In spring 1989, pro-democracy protests sprang up all over China with thousands of demonstrators gathering in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. On the night of June 3, the Chinese government terrorized its own people by sending the People’s Liberation Army to the square to start firing at the crowd. It was an egregious act against human rights and the death toll from that night has never been confirmed. The government has never apologized for the massacre. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government has cancelled the 2020 annual candlelight vigil recognizing the anniversary in the city. It cites distancing rules in the Covid-19 age but critics are afraid this is just one more way the Chinese government is exercising its control over Hong Kong.
Let’s remember today and continue the call for basic human rights – freedom and security – in every country.