Tiananmen Square commemorated overseas as Hong Kong security law scraps annual vigil

  • China has suppressed large-scale commemorations of the Tiananmen Square crackdown within its borders, so commemorations outside China have become crucial to preserving it in history. Tuesday is the 35th anniversary of the event.
  • On June 4, 1989, government troops opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
  • Hong Kong's decades-old annual vigil to mourn the dead disappeared after the enactment of a China-imposed security law.

As the 35th anniversary of Beijing's Tiananmen Square crackdown approached, Rowena He, a leading scholar of that bloody chapter in China's modern history, was busy traveling between the United States, Britain and Canada to give a series of lectures. Each aimed to speak for those who cannot.

The 1989 crackdown, in which government troops opened fire on student-led pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds if not thousands, remains a taboo subject in mainland China. In Hong Kong, once a beacon of commemorative freedom, the massive annual June 4 vigil that mourned the victims for decades has disappeared, a victim of the city's crackdown on dissidents following huge anti-government protests in 2019.

He was still reeling from the loss of his academic position after Hong Kong authorities last year rejected his visa renewal, widely seen as a sign of declining intellectual freedom in the financial hub. Despite the grueling schedule of negotiations, the former protester in Guangzhou, southern China, in 1989 saw it as her duty.

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“We can't light the candles in Hong Kong anymore. So we would light it everywhere, in the world,” she said.

While Beijing's hardening political stance has effectively ended any large-scale commemoration within its borders, commemorative events abroad have become increasingly crucial to preserving memories of China's repression. Tiananmen. In recent years, a growing number of conferences, rallies, exhibitions and plays on the subject have emerged in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and Taiwan.

These activities raise hope and counter aggressive efforts to erase memories of repression, particularly those seen in Hong Kong. In 2021, city police charged three leaders of the group that organized the vigil with subversion under a sweeping 2020 national security law that virtually wiped out public dissent. The group later voted to disband. Statues linked to Tiananmen have also been removed from universities.

Rowena Il poses for a photo on the set of the play "on May 35," whose title is a roundabout way of referring to June 4, in London.

Rowena He poses for a photo on the set of the play “May 35”, the title of which is a roundabout way of referring to June 4, in London, May 30, 2024, ahead of the 35th anniversary of the repression of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Rowena He, a leading expert on the event, traveled between the United States, Britain and Canada to give a series of lectures aimed at speaking for those who cannot. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Last week, under a new national security law, Hong Kong police arrested seven people on suspicion of sedition following the posting of content on social media commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown. A Christian newspaper, which usually publishes content related to the event before its anniversary, left its front page virtually blank. He said he could only turn words into squares and white spaces to meet the current situation.

On Tuesday, the park which hosted the vigil will be occupied by a carnival organized by pro-Beijing groups.

However, attempts to silence commemoration efforts have failed to erase the poignant memories from the minds of a generation of liberal-minded Chinese in the years after tanks rolled into the heartland of Beijing to break up weeks of student-led protests that had spread to other countries. cities and were seen as a threat to Communist Party rule.

He, who was 17 at the time, remembers that demonstrators like her took to the streets out of love for their country. When the repression took place, she spent the whole night in front of her television, unable to sleep. After returning to school, she had to recite the official narrative – that the government had successfully suppressed a riot – in order to pass her exams.

“I never killed anyone. But I lived with survivor's guilt all these years,” she said.

To preserve memories of the event, a museum dedicated to the Tiananmen repression opened in New York last June. It features exhibits such as a blood-stained shirt and a tent used by student protesters.

A similar museum run by vigil organizers was closed in Hong Kong in 2021.

In early May, its chairman of the board, Wang Dan, also a former student leader of the Tiananmen protests, estimated that the New York museum had attracted about 1,000 people, including Chinese immigrants, American citizens and Hong Kongers. To expand his audience, Wang said he plans to hold temporary exhibitions on college campuses across the United States, and possibly other countries in the longer term.

He said overseas commemorative events are crucial as mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers can view overseas commemorative activities online.

“This may have an effect in mainland China because young people all know how to use VPNs to circumvent internet censorship,” he said.

Aline Sierp, professor of European history and memory studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said commemorative activities abroad allow memories to travel and endure, paving the way for other people and future generations.

But she added that this could be “a double-edged sword” because adapting memories to new locations could risk fragmenting or decontextualizing them in the future.

Alison Landsberg, a specialist in memory studies at George Mason University in Virginia, said efforts abroad have the potential to inspire people in other countries who face their own challenges in pursuing democracy.

To perpetuate memory, movies and TV series can be powerful tools for people to capture memories of events they didn't experience, she said.

She said foreign theater productions about the crackdown, which began last year in Taiwan and continued in London this year, have a greater opportunity to make those connections and potentially reach a wider audience .

“When you have a dramatic narrative, you have the ability to involve the viewer in the story in a more intimate way,” Landsberg said.

Last week, spectators at a London theater were visibly moved, some to tears, after seeing the play “May 35”, a title which subtly refers to the repression of June 4.

The play, produced by Lit Ming-wai, a member of the Hong Kong diaspora who moved to the United Kingdom after the enactment of the 2020 security law, tells the story of an elderly couple who wish to mourn their loss with dignity. son died in 1989.

Its director, Kim Pearce, born in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, said tragedy resonated with her from a young age and she was moved to tears when reading the poem “Tiananmen” by James Fenton. Working on this project, she said, further deepened her connection to the stories.


Sue Thomas, a 64-year-old British theater regular, also found the play deeply moving. “Especially as a parent myself now, which I wasn't back then, which has kind of made me think about it in a much more sincere way,” she said.

At the theater, He, the scholar, was one of the post-show speakers, sharing with the audience his struggles and the motivations behind his work. She said the play was so powerful that it made her relive the trauma of the past 35 years, leaving her in tears and losing her contact lenses.

“It shows how much suffering people had to endure all these years,” she said. “If we can do something, I hope we get the younger generation to understand this.”


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