The Chinese government has never given a full account of what happened on June 4, 1989, when pro-democracy protesters were shot down in Tiananmen Square. Yet as the 20th anniversary approaches, a small piece of good news emerged: Liu Zhihua, the last activist known to be jailed on the now-defunct charge of “hooliganism,” has finally been released.
Liu was just 24 years old when he helped incite workers to strike at a state-owned factory in Xiangtan, Chairman Mao’s hometown. Over 10,000 employees participated, showing their solidarity with demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. According to the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group, Liu was convicted of “hooliganism,” a poorly defined offence frequently used against workers. (It was removed from China’s criminal law in 1997.)
John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, agrees that Liu’s release is significant, although he’s “mystified” by one aspect of it: why the Chinese government didn’t bother to publicize the news. Liu was freed back in January—but it only became public knowledge this week, after the foundation confirmed it through an independent source in China. “As recently as five years ago, the Chinese government actually wanted positive publicity about their human rights situation,” Kamm says. “That’s changed. Now [it seems] they don’t care.”
Kamm hopes that Tiananmen’s 20th anniversary could provide some incentive to release the last of the so-called “June Fourth Prisoners.” (Roughly 30 people are still serving sentences, estimates the foundation.) “If the government has even the slightest interest in being seen to put June 4 behind it, they should release them all,” Kamm says. “It’s been 20 years. It’s time.”