Why Tiananmen is Commemorated in Hong Kong and Washington—Not Beijing
Earlier this month, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park saw close to 115,000 people gather to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. At the vigil, mothers of the victims of the crackdown laid wreaths at the foot of a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that had been erected by student protesters in 1989. Protesters also unveiled a bust of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist and prisoner of conscience who died last year after brutal treatment at the hands of his jailers, and called on the Chinese government to release dissidents from prison and house arrest in mainland China. The organizers of the Hong Kong event said the goal was to call for an end of “one-party dictatorship” in China.
In Hong Kong, the event was tolerated—although police downplayed the event and estimated that there were only 17,000-18,000 attendees. In mainland China, however, such events are strictly prohibited.
Hong Kong, because of its partial autonomy, is the only place in China where the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown can be openly honored. Almost a generation later, the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square cannot be discussed anywhere else. On the mainland, there is no memorial honoring the lives of those who died at the hands of the Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does everything in its power to suppress any mention of Tiananmen Square and all memorials honoring those who died.
Starting in May 1989, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—the name, ironically, means “Gate of Heavenly Peace”—was the site of major pro-democracy protests that attracted students from across China. They demanded political freedom, freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press. At that time, the students were especially upset with the educational system not fully representing free-market capitalism perspectives in the classroom. By June, more than one million students had gathered in Tiananmen Square and hunger strikes were spreading across the country.
In June, the Chinese government enacted martial law. On June 4 at 1:00 a.m., the Chinese military and police stormed Tiananmen Square and opened fire on the student protesters. Western officials and journalists attested that hundreds to thousands were killed during the military crackdown. The Chinese Communist Party still has not released any official estimates on the number of citizens who died. Almost 30 years later, democratic nations like the United States still urge China to acknowledge the events of Tiananmen Square by releasing official numbers on the death toll.
Twenty-nine years later, the historic square lay under lockdown. On the day of the anniversary, the Chinese government increased security at Tiananmen Square and surrounding areas to prevent any dissident activism, deploying a large number of security checkpoints, police and stun-gun wielding robots. The families of Tiananmen Square victims were placed under close surveillance. The Chinese government even transported victims’ family members to the cemetery where the victims were buried and monitored them there to prevent any political activity. In addition to banning protests and vigils, the Chinese government has made concerted efforts to destroy any mention of the history of Tiananmen Square. On social media platforms, phrases like “Tiananmen Square” and “June 4” were censored.
But despite the best efforts of the Chinese government, people and governments around the world still mark the anniversary of the massacre. During the week of the anniversary this year, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ruffled some feathers with a press statement calling for the government in Beijing to release a public account of the number of victims who died 29 years ago and to release political prisoners in the country. Secretary Pompeo referenced Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech. The president of Taiwan also released a statement via Facebook calling for more transparency from the Chinese government.
The Chinese government, however, rejects these calls for accountability as illegitimate meddling. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that Secretary Pompeo was not qualified to speak on the issue of Tiananmen Square. For reasons that are not difficult to guess, phrases like “US Embassy” suddenly joined “June 4” on the censored list.
Although commemorations were banned across mainland China, the fallen protestors of Tiananmen were mourned across the world. At the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, we had the privilege of commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre by hosting a vigil at our foundation’s memorial—which is also a replica of the Goddess of Democracy erected by brave students 29 years ago. It was a special honor to meet Fang Zheng, who, as a student protester 29 years ago at Tiananmen Square, lost both of his legs when a military tank ran over him in his attempt to save a woman from being crushed. Hearing his heroic story was a potent reminder of the human cost of communism.
The vigils held in Hong Kong, Washington, and across the world represent the freedom to be that is held down by the oppressive hand of the Communist Party in China. Twenty-nine years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the sacrifice of the protesters at Tiananmen in 1989 still matters. The injustice they fought still exists in this world. And until they can be commemorated in the heart of Beijing, we will not tire of remembering them every June.