Tiananmen Square commemorated abroad as Hong Kong security law suppresses annual vigil

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

As the 35th anniversary of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square crackdown neared, Rowena He, a prominent scholar of that bloody chapter of modern China’s history, was busy flying between the United States, Britain and Canada to give a series of talks. Each was aimed at speaking out for those who cannot.

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

He was still reeling from the loss of her academic position after Hong Kong authorities last year rejected her visa renewal, widely seen as a sign of the financial hub’s decline in intellectual freedom. Despite the exhausting schedule of talks, the former protester in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in 1989 viewed this as her duty.

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“We cannot light the candles in Hong Kong anymore. So we would light it everywhere, globally,” she said.

As Beijing’s toughened political stance effectively extinguished any large-scale commemorations within its borders, overseas commemorative events have grown increasingly crucial for preserving memories of the Tiananmen crackdown. Over the past few years, a growing number of talks, rallies, exhibitions and plays on the subject have emerged in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and Taiwan.

These activities foster hope and counteract the aggressive efforts to erase reminders of the crackdown, particularly those seen in Hong Kong. In 2021, the city’s police charged three leaders of the group that organized the vigil with subversion under a 2020 sweeping national security law that has all but wiped out public dissent. Later, the group voted to disband. Tiananmen-related statues were also removed from universities.

Rowena He poses for a photograph on the set of the play "May 35th," whose title is a roundabout way to refer to June 4, in London.

Rowena He poses for a photograph on the set of the play “May 35th,” whose title is a roundabout way to refer to June 4, in London, on May 30, 2024, as the 35th anniversary of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square crackdown neared. Rowena He, a prominent scholar of the event, flew between the United States, Britain and Canada to give a series of talks aimed at speaking out for those who cannot. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Last week, under a new, home-grown security law, Hong Kong police arrested seven people on suspicion of alleged sedition over their posting of social media content about commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown. A Christian newspaper, which typically publishes content related to the event ahead of its anniversary, left its front page mostly blank. It said it could only turn words into blank squares and white space to respond to the current situation.

On Tuesday, the park that used to hold the vigil will be occupied by a carnival held by pro-Beijing groups.

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

He, who was 17 years old at the time, recalls that protesters like her took to the streets out of love for their country. When the crackdown happened, she spent the entire night in front of her TV, unable to sleep. After she returned to school, she was required to recite the official narrative — that the government had successfully quelled a riot — in order to pass her exams.

“I never killed anyone. But I lived with that survivor’s guilt all those years,” she said.

To preserve memories of the event, a museum dedicated to the Tiananmen crackdown 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 operated by vigil organizers was shuttered in Hong Kong in 2021.

As of early May, its board chair Wang Dan, also a leading former student leader of the Tiananmen protests, estimated the New York museum attracted about 1,000 people, including Chinese immigrants, U.S. citizens and Hong Kongers. To expand its audience, Wang said he plans to organize temporary exhibitions on university campuses in the U.S., and possibly in other countries over the longer term.

He said overseas memorial events are crucial because mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers can see overseas memorial activities online.

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

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

But she said it can be “a double-edged sword” because adapting the memories to new places might risk fragmenting or de-contextualizing them in the future.

Alison Landsberg, a memory studies scholar at George Mason University in Virginia, said that overseas efforts carry the potential to inspire people from other places who are facing their own challenges in the pursuit of democracy.

To carry the memories forward, film and television dramas can be powerful tools for people to take on memories of events through which they didn’t live, she said.

She said overseas theater productions about the crackdown, which began last year in Taiwan and continued in London this year, have a greater possibility of making those connections and potentially reaching a broader audience.

“When you have a dramatic narrative, you have the capacity to bring the viewer into the story in a kind of intimate way,” Landsberg said.

Last week, members of an audience at a London theater were visibly moved, some to tears, after watching the play “May 35th,” a title that subtly references the June 4 crackdown.

The play, produced by Lit Ming-wai, part of the Hong Kong diaspora who moved to the U.K. after the enactment of the 2020 security law, tells the story of an elderly couple who wish to properly mourn their son who died in 1989.

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

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British theater-goer Sue Thomas, 64, also found the play deeply moving. “Particularly as a parent myself now, which I wasn’t then, which sort of made me think of it in a much more sort of heartfelt way,” she said.

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

“It shows that how much sufferings that people had to endure all these years,” she said. “If there’s anything we can do, I hope that we would bring the younger generation to understand this.”



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