Channel NewsAsia

Tiananmen anniversary: US urges China to free activists

The United States on Tuesday pressed China on human rights 25 years after the Tiananmen Square incident, urging the Asian power to release activists rounded up ahead of the anniversary.

WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday pressed China on human rights 25 years after the Tiananmen Square incident, urging the Asian power to release activists rounded up ahead of the anniversary.

At a time of growing distrust between the world's two largest economies, the United States repeated calls for Beijing to allow greater political freedoms as the communist government steps up arrests and censorship.

"We've very clearly called on the Chinese authorities to release all the activists, journalists and lawyers who have been detained ahead of the 25th anniversary," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

"I think it's time to allow some more space, quite frankly, for discussion in their own country, particularly around this kind of anniversary," she added.

China has tried hard to quash any public memories of the June 3-4, 1989 incident, where hundreds of civilians were killed during protests by pro-democracy students.

Police visibly stepped up their presence in Beijing to prevent any public commemoration and detained dozens of activists. A monitoring service said that several Google sites had been blocked in the world's most populous nation.

The United States regularly raises human rights concerns with China, although critics say that US efforts have largely been symbolic as Washington resumed normal trade relations with Beijing soon after the Tiananmen incident.

But relations between the two countries have grown tense in recent months, with the United States raising the stakes by indicting five Chinese officers for alleged cyber-espionage.

Chen Guangcheng, one of China's most prominent activists who dramatically escaped from house arrest in 2012 for the safety of the US embassy, urged commemorations of the Tiananmen Square movement as he addressed a think tank in Washington.

Speaking in English in public for the first time, the blind-since-birth self-taught lawyer hailed Hong Kong -- which is part of China but autonomous -- for its annual June 4 vigils and for recently opening the first museum on the Tiananmen incident.

"Every candlelight vigil makes the perpetrators shudder in fear. It gives people courage to think and speak aloud again," Chen said, speaking forcefully in clear but careful English as he read his speech in Braille at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"A government that cannot face its own history is a government without a future," Chen said, asking how a government that disrespects its citizens can be expected to "treat other countries any better."

Chen said he was 17 years old at the time of the Tiananmen incident and was not enrolled in school due to his blindness. But Chen said he sympathised as he listened to the radio and would have joined the protests if he were a student.

Chen rose to prominence by exposing forced abortions in eastern Shandong province as authorities enforced China's one-child policy. He spent four years in prison until 2010 and was then put under house arrest, where he said that he and his wife -- who appeared with him in Washington -- were subjected to severe beatings.

Chen, who was allowed to move to the United States after high-level negotiations, urged Western countries to keep raising human rights and "stop receiving the June 4 incident's criminals as your honored guests."

"Don't let those who crush human rights enter your free, democratic countries. Deny them the warmth of your handshake and the warmth of your smile."

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia