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Diplomacy in Action

The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and Honoring Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
National Endowment for Democracy 2014 Democracy Award Event
Washington, DC
May 29, 2014


Thank you, Chairman Frost, for that kind introduction. And thank you to Carl Gershman and the National Endowment for Democracy for bestowing these awards every year.

I also want to offer a few words of appreciation to Congressman Frank Wolf. For 33 years, he has represented his Virginia constituents in Washington. But he has also represented their values across the globe, confronting injustice against Tibetans in China, Baha’is in Iran, Copts in Egypt, Kurds, Cubans, Vietnamese, Sudanese, and so many others, regardless of the votes it cost or gained him at home. He is a legislator who can measure his achievements not just in votes cast and bills passed, but in dissidents not imprisoned and war crimes not committed. He also reminds me of something I love about working on human rights in Washington: It’s an issue that can unite right and left, red and blue, religious and secular America.

As the NED Democracy Award is a replica of the Goddess of Democracy—the statue erected by students in Tiananmen Square—it’s appropriate that we think of China, and remember those tragic events 25 years ago. When the Tiananmen protests began, I was fresh out of school and working over in the Russell Building for Senator Pat Moynihan. We had TVs in our offices, and there was this channel no one paid much attention to called CNN. But on June 4th, we were mesmerized, because there on the screen, live in Beijing, was a young man stopping tanks with a gesture of his hand. For the first time, the world watched history unfold in real time. And we have ever since. That is one legacy of Tiananmen.

We all know what happened next. But we also know that the drama did not end on June 4th. Since then, China has changed in so many ways. It has built a modern economy, lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, become an influential power, a partner on many issues we care about. Yet many who stood on the square that day, asking only for the freedom to speak their minds and to have a say, are still harassed and others are unaccounted for.

A strong and confident country should be able to come to terms with the painful parts of its past. China should provide the fullest possible accounting of what happened 25 years ago and stop retribution against those who wish to remember and debate it.

If there is still any disagreement on this point, it is only between the Chinese and American governments, not between the Chinese and American people. As Xu Zhiyong, one of today’s two honorees, said in the closing statement at his trial last year, democratic values “are rooted in common humanity. They should not be Eastern or Western, socialist or capitalist, but universal to all human societies.”

Xu Zhiyong worked for a set of goals that the Chinese government says it supports: respect for Chinese law, institutions accountable to the people, and an end to corruption. Yet for this, he is in prison. Liu Xiaobo is in prison for drafting a document, a charter calling for basic democratic freedoms enjoyed by people in every part of the world. His wife is under house arrest. A strong and confident country does not fear such people; it sees them as a source of strength. In this spirit, we urge Chinese authorities to release Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong and other members of the New Citizens Movement, and to guarantee the Chinese people the internationally recognized rights and freedoms that all people deserve.

We ask for this not just because it’s right to do so. As National Security Adviser Susan Rice recently said: “When courts imprison political dissidents who merely urge respect for China’s own laws, no one in China, including Americans doing business there, can feel secure. When ethnic and religious minorities—such as Tibetans and Uighurs—are denied their fundamental freedoms, the trust that holds diverse societies together is undermined.”

As China grows more integrated with the world, its economic, environmental and security problems will be our problems, too. Those kinds of problems only get solved where governments allow civil society to flourish, and people to communicate, and journalists to write, and judges to judge, freely without interference of political leaders. While it is the Chinese people who have the most to gain by seeing this happen, we have a stake, too.

In his statement to the Chinese court that convicted him in 2009, and that was later read at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the following year, Liu Xiaobo wrote, “Twenty years have passed, but the ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest.” The enormous effort the Chinese government makes to suppress collective memory of the event has only proven one thing: how much ordinary Chinese people insist on discussing it, and how much they want not just to remember their past but to shape their future. So long as they ask for that basic right, the United States will continue to stand with them; it’s in our nature, and in our interest.

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