Thirty Years After Tiananmen Square, China is Richer—But Not Remotely Free | Opinion

Forty years ago, when the U.S. was debating whether to open diplomatic relations with China, human rights was front and center of the discussion. The argument from those who won the day was that economic engagement with China would lead to political freedom for its citizens.

It only took a decade for that argument to be shown to be tragically misguided. The brutal scenes of troops from the People's Liberation Army firing live ammunition on civilians peaceably calling for political reforms at Tiananmen Square shocked the world, even with so much of the details of the event aggressively obscured by the Chinese government.

Three decades on from the nationwide crackdown that resulted in casualties and thousands of arrests, the families who lost children continue to face surveillance and harassment as the authorities continue to suppress their campaign for justice. Even the mere mention or commemoration on the internet of the Tiananmen crackdown risks heavy retaliation. Meanwhile, activists continue to be detained and denied their fundamental human rights because of vague charges of subversion of the state.

Since then, you'd be hard pressed to find any serious analysts who still believe economic prosperity has led to a more liberated China. Instead, China has been emboldened to infringe on the rights of its own people at home and abroad, cracking down on burgeoning civil society and activists, and undermining international human rights institutions as a means of subjecting its people under its control.

And yet, although President Trump's rhetoric toward Xi Jinping personally is mercurial at best, the Trump Administration refuses to take any meaningful action in holding the Chinese government accountable for gross human rights violations.

The 30th anniversary of the killings at Tiananmen Square must necessarily sharpen the focus on China's ongoing abuses. One of the most blatant current violations of international human rights law is the systemic discrimination and detention of the Uighur people. Up to a million Uighurs—predominantly Muslim people from the Xinjiang region in China—and other ethnic minorities have been detained and run the risk of torture in so-called 'transformation-through-education' centers.

The Chinese government justifies its actions as necessary to eradicate the "forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism." In practice it is targeting ethnic groups for merely pursuing their rights. Shockingly, not only has the United States failed to hold China to account for the mistreatment of Uighurs, it has played an active role in their subjugation. In 2004, the U.S. hosted a Chinese delegation to observe the interrogation of 22 Uighurs detainees who were captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

Having joined the global cry of outrage in 1989 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, the United States is now not only allowing but abetting a whole new generation of systemic abuse by the Chinese government. It's well past time for the United States and others to learn the lessons of this history and to use instruments of power to leverage and commit China to its international human rights obligations.

Previous human rights dialogues have failed because they allowed China to pay lip service without making concrete improvements. The United States should think of the global as well as the domestic impact of China's human rights issues and should expose and highlight abuses where China is exerting its economic and military influence abroad at the expense of human rights. The United States can start by passing into law the Uighur Human Rights and Policy Act and the UIGHUR Act—legislation which takes a whole-of-government approach to tackling China's human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Human rights remain under attack in China, on a scale unequaled anywhere else. The question is if the world will wake up to it. This is an opportunity for a watershed moment for U.S.-China relations—but only if we heed the lessons of previous decades.

Francisco Bencosme is the Asia advocacy manager at Amnesty International USA.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​