Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen called on China to “face up” to the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown on the 29th anniversary of the tragedy, saying the island’s democratisation is an example of how to move forward from an authoritarian past.
In comments likely to incense Beijing, Tsai called on the government to acknowledge what happened in a message written on her official Facebook page.
“I sincerely believe that if Beijing can face up to the incident and acknowledge state violence in this event, then the unfortunate history of June 4 will become a cornerstone in China’s advancement towards free democracy,” Tsai wrote.
Almost three decades after the Chinese Communist Party sent tanks to crush demonstrations in the Beijing square on June 4, 1989, China still forbids open discussion about it and imposes heavy censorship on words related to the incident.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were killed even though the student-led protesters were staging a peaceful sit-in demanding democratic reforms.
Taiwan today is a fully-fledged democracy but it also has a history of authoritarian rule marked by violent events. Martial law was only lifted on the island in 1987.
Since coming to power in May 2016, Tsai’s administration has passed laws to investigate the period of oppression, and removed authoritarian symbols including statues of former ruler Chiang Kai-shek.
Tsai appealed directly to Chinese netizens, writing in simplified Chinese used on the mainland in her Facebook message instead of the more complicated traditional characters that are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“Chinese netizens who come here will find that my Facebook page is the epitome of Taiwan’s democracy… we don’t have sensitive words, we don’t have internet censorship, and there’s certainly no need to bypass firewalls,” she wrote.
China has one of the world’s most restrictive internet regimes, with a “Great Firewall” that blocks foreign social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Crackdowns in Taiwan that were once described as “riots” have become events that “spurred, gathered, and mobilised society to drive Taiwan’s democratic reforms,” Tsai added.
Her post attracted over a thousand comments in a little more than an hour, with a mix of criticism and support.
“I hope your words can touch the conscience of some mainland Chinese,” one commenter wrote in simplified Chinese.
“All the talents are going to China. What’s the point of talking about democracy and freedom?” another countered.
China claims self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified at some point even though the island sees itself as a sovereign country.
Cross-strait relations have rapidly deteriorated since Tsai became president as Beijing is concerned her traditionally pro-independence party will push Taiwan to formally separate from China.