BEIJING: People arrive in Victoria Park ahead of a candlelight vigil yesterday to mark the 29th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing. – AFP

BEIJING/HONG KONG: The United States urges China to make a full public account of those killed, detained or who went missing during a crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. The Chinese government sent tanks to quell the June 4, 1989 protests, and has never released a death toll. Estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

The Tiananmen crackdown is a taboo subject in China and 29 years later it remains a point of contention between China and many Western countries. In a statement on Sunday the recently appointed Pompeo said he remembered “the tragic loss of innocent lives”. “As Liu Xiaobo wrote in his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech, delivered in absentia, ‘the ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest’,” Pompeo said referring to the Chinese dissident who died last year while still in custody. “We join others in the international community in urging the Chinese government to make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing,” Pompeo added.

In response to Pompeo’s comments, China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said yesterday. China long ago reached a clear conclusion about the events of that era, but the United States every year issues statements of “gratuitous criticism” and interferes in its internal affairs, Hua said. “The US Secretary of State has absolutely no qualifications to demand the Chinese government do anything,” she added.

Hu Xijin, editor of nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, called Pompeo’s statement a “meaningless stunt” that “represents a wish of the Western world to meddle in China’s political process”. The Chinese Communist Party no longer mentions the Tiananmen incident in order to help Chinese society move on, which it has successfully done, Hu added, writing in English on Twitter, which is blocked in China.

Tens of thousands of people gathered later in the day in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary, the only place in China where such large-scale public commemorations happen. On Tiananmen Square, security was tight as is usual for the anniversary, with no signs of any protests or other memorial events. Foreigners’ passports were checked by Chinese police at a checkpoint nearly a kilometre from the square. A Reuters reporter was turned away and told that unapproved “interview activities” were forbidden in the square yesterday.

In their annual open letter, the Tiananmen Mothers, who represent the families of those who died, said the government was guilty of serious disrespect by ignoring their requests for redress. “Such a powerful proletarian dictatorship apparatus is afraid of us: the old, the sick, and the weakest and most vulnerable of our society,” they wrote in a letter addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In Taiwan, the democratic and self-ruled island China claims as its own, President Tsai Ing-wen said that if China could face up to what had happened it could become the bedrock for China’s own democratic transformation. “I hope that both sides of the Taiwan Strait can enjoy the universal values of freedom and democracy,” she said in a statement on her Facebook page written in the simplified Chinese script used in China. Facebook is also blocked in China.

HK activists jailed

Two Hong Kong independence activists who were stripped of their status as lawmakers in 2016 were sentenced to four weeks in prison yesterday for their role in a fracas that disrupted proceedings in the city’s parliament. Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching belong to Hong Kong’s embattled independence movement, which is calling for the semi-autonomous city to split from China as its freedoms come under threat from Beijing.

The pair were told they had “directly hurt the dignity of the legislative council” by judge Wong Sze-lai, who went on to grant them bail pending appeal. They were both held in custody after the sentencing while the court awaited their bail money. Yau later waived her right to appeal and chose to serve out her sentence. Calls for Hong Kong to split from China have incensed Beijing and the past two years have seen a crackdown on any expression of pro-independence views.

Yau, 27, and Leung, 31, are the latest activists to be given jail terms on protest-related charges. They had pleaded not guilty to unlawful assembly and attempted forcible entry after trying to barge into a legislative council meeting in Nov 2016. The duo had been barred from the main chamber pending a court decision over their disqualification from parliament.

They ran into the chamber, and after security bundled them out, they and their supporters tried to push their way into a committee room to which the disrupted session had been moved. In the ensuing chaos, they clashed again with security, with at least three staff taken to hospital and police called in. Despite being elected by the public, the pair were never allowed to take up their seats after protesting at their swearing-in ceremony.

They deliberately misread their oaths of office, inserted expletives and draped themselves in “Hong Kong is not China” flags. Beijing intervened to ensure they were not given the chance to retake their oaths by issuing a special “interpretation” of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The ruling said that any oath-taker who did not follow the prescribed wording of the pledge, “or takes the oath in a manner which is not sincere or not solemn”, should be disqualified.

After the interpretation, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled to bar them both. Former UK foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said the prison sentences handed out to Yau and Leung were “deeply disturbing”. “It is difficult to believe that former lawmakers would have been punished by imprisonment for such relatively minor offences in other countries,” he said in a statement issued by Hong Kong Watch, an NGO that monitors the city’s freedoms, of which Rifkind is a patron. – Agencies