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We Must Remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre

Credit: Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Getty Images

June 4th, 2021 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – and the first year since the 1989 massacre where no formal commemoration event will be held as per government-sponsored censorship rules. Following a tumultuous year of pandemic restrictions, civil and political unrest, and government censorship, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has deemed vigils to commemorate the deaths of up to several thousand peaceful protesters an “unauthorized political act.” Some of the most notable vigils in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan were restricted and, in Hong Kong, the national security law was invoked warning people to stay away.

While censorship of sensitive words, photos, numbers, and symbols that reference the massacre has always been the case in the PRC, the government suppression of voices has recently expanded into Hong Kong. Since 1990, Hong Kong has held two vigils every year to remember the bloodshed of peaceful protests at Tiananmen. The past two years, however, have seen increased government suppression: those taking part or promoting vigils could face more than 5 years in jail, activists have been silenced through enforced “holidays,” online events have been shut down, and tighter security has been applied to the Beijing square.

To understand the significance of seeking accountability for the Tiananmen Massacre, it is important to address the events that led up to the massacre. While China’s rapid economic success after the end of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976 introduced foreign ideas of western democracy and liberalism, it also provided opportunities for corruption within the government. In the 1980s, then Secretary-General Hu Yaobang implemented many reforms that overturned several Mao-era policies. He opened up the country to new ideas including those of free-market capitalism and was sympathetic to student’s demands for democratic reform. However, the government's lack of transparency and suppression of the press, in addition to rising inflation, cultivated dissatisfaction among youths, causing widespread and small-scale pro-democratic protests to erupt as early as 1986. This eventually led to Hu’s forced resignation as many other party leaders blamed him for encouraging social instability due to his ‘liberal’ views.

In April 1989, Hu Yaobang's death sparked a large-scale pro-democracy movement with calls for better education, freedom of the press, and the right to protest. Tens of thousands of students arrived at Tiananmen Square on the day of his funeral. In the following weeks, the number of protestors grew to be more than 300,000, many of which were university students that came from different cities. Some began hunger strikes as a means of gaining worldwide attention and sympathy to pressure the Chinese government into meeting their demands. The protests divided the Chinese Communist Party internally into those who wanted to reach a consensus with the students and those who wanted to enact martial law to disperse them.

On May 20, martial law was declared and the military was mobilized into the square. On June 1, Premier Li Peng issued a report justifying the strong military action against the students, claiming that American forces were involved in the student movement and attempting to overthrow the Communist Party. On the night of June 3rd, the military opened fire on the protestors. The violence lasted well into the next day, as troops used tear gas and machine guns to try and disperse the protest.

Tanks in Beijing on June 5, 1989, the day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Credit: Jeff Widener/AP

The magnitude of deaths that occurred during the Tiananmen Square Massacre is still debated today. Reports from the Chinese State Council count the number of deaths to be around 300 people, while other groups claim that it is as high as 4,000. In one night, hundreds, possibly thousands, of protestors were murdered. However, the true number of deaths is at risk of being lost. Because of ongoing censorship, the names, fates, and stories of the victims are largely unknown as it is nearly impossible to openly discuss the events. Chinese social media and search engines filter out any mention of the events taking place and showing remembrance or commemorating the event is considered an act of defiance.

By erasing the Tiananmen Square Massacre from history and denying it ever happened, the Chinese government is avoiding not only the responsibility for its use of violence but any remorse or apology for what occurred. Today, freedom of speech and assembly is still denied and the families of those who were killed are closely monitored. Activists have been imprisoned or exiled, and discussions bring the threat of detainment. Three decades and several successions of power later, the government has gone as far as rewriting the history books in an attempt to portray the student protestors as rioters and foreign infiltrators.

Mainland China has banned any public events in remembrance of the massacre and has suppressed any voices that try to speak out. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are some of the few places where vigils and gatherings are commonly held every year. The local government in Hong Kong this year, however, had decided to ban any public gatherings relating to the anniversary, citing public health concerns and possible violations of the National Security Law imposed after the 2019 pro-democracy protests.The law, which banned many forms of public gathering and criminalized many forms of protest and political dissidence in the city, has bolstered police power and presences in regards to political events.

Before the pandemic, thousands of Hong Kongers would gather in a yearly vigil at Victoria Park to light candles and sing songs to honor those who were killed in the massacre. This year, the Hong Kong Police closed down the park, placing barricades around the football fields and increasing police presence to guard and prevent any gathering.

Police officers in Hong Kong block Victoria Park on June 4, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Lam Yik

Two days before the anniversary, the June 4th Museum, which had opened earlier in the week, closed down after it was placed under investigation over the validity of its licenses to conduct a public exhibition. On the morning of the anniversary, police arrested Chow Hang-tung, the Vice-Chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, alleging that she had used social media to organize a public event banned by the police.

The park stood empty, but that didn’t stop several organizing efforts from activists, community leaders, and government officials to find other ways for people to commemorate the event. In Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, several people came together in spontaneous gatherings, lighting candles or flashing the lights on their phones despite heavy police presence. Police said they had arrested at least six people gathered near the park and in other places. In other locations, people gathered in churches, where religious leaders held services in remembrance of the events.

People light their phones in the Causeway Bay district in Hong Kong. Credit: RFA

In Taiwan, leaders called for China to “return power to the people.” Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen stated, “I believe all Taiwanese people who are proud of freedom and democracy will never forget this day in history and will hold tighter to our convictions.” However, Taiwan was unable to host any vigils or gatherings this year, as the island is facing a spike in coronavirus cases.

To acknowledge the anniversary of this historical event is crucial, as the expression of conflicting political voices in China is as precarious as ever before. Commemorating the 4th is an act of defiance in face of a government actively trying to stamp out any memory of what occurred, an ongoing feat of resistance in a time where people are still being silenced. We must remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre because it was not a crackdown, or incident, or counter-revolutionary riot. It was a massacre. Remembering the event not only pays tribute to those who were killed – it garners much needed recognition and support for those who can not speak up themselves, while carrying on the spirit of freedom and democracy of the 1989 protestors.

- Current Events Editorial Staff


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