In early summer 1989 the Chinese authorities responded to the growing public demands for a more responsive and accountable government with martial law and the killing of hundreds of its own citizens on the streets of Beijing. This was followed by large scale arrests, purges and endless sessions of self-criticism for those suspected of participating or sympathising with the demonstrations.

For the last thirty years the trauma of Tiananmen has cast its long shadow over the Party State’s relationship to its citizens. Periods of relative openness have been followed by crackdowns as the authorities attempted to rein in groups that took advantage of small freedoms. Falun gong practitioners, human rights lawyers, house church Christians and labour activists have all been targeted.

Despite the repression, there remains, today, a small, yet active and independent civil society in China. They help keep alive that extraordinary, exhilarant flourishing of Chinese society that we witnessed across China in the months leading up to June 4th

But, to protect their freedoms they have had to learn to adapt to and accommodate the interests of the state. No street protests or ‘performance art’, no nationwide networking, and no public criticism of the leadership. Nevertheless, these groups are continuing to bring the voices and experiences of Chinese citizens to the policy challenges facing today’s China: environmental degradation, poor working conditions, ill treatment in detention, discrimination against women, migrants and the LGBT community.

The rest of the world has also learned to adapt to China. The consequences of our failure to respond adequately to the challenges posed by China’s use of power now risk corroding our freedoms.

It was different in 1989. After watching weeks of peaceful protest on our televisions, the killings of June 4th were a shock. Many politicians showed leadership in responding promptly to the brutality.  Chinese students overseas received asylum, high level exchanges were cancelled and international sanctions were imposed. As then Director of the Great Britain-China Centre, I set up the Great Britain-China Scholars Emergency Fund which received significant private and public donations. The British government granted Mainland Chinese in Britain exceptional leave to remain, universities waived fees and our fund provided living expenses to those too fearful to return to a China that was hunting down protestors.  

China is certainly a much richer and more powerful country than it was in 1989. But the enormity of the human rights violations taking place today in Xinjiang demand a far more adequate response from the rest of the world. As we remember Tiananmen, let us also challenge ourselves and our politicians to find answers to the pressing questions posed by the large-scale, extrajudicial detentions of Uyghurs in western China.