A sea of candles flickers across Victoria Park, as Hong Kong gathers to remember the dead of Tiananmen. The mourners fill six rain-wet football pitches plus surrounding areas.
This year’s ritual has many familiar elements – the songs, the speeches, the candles held in paper cones. But the record number of people is new, maybe as high as 180,000, the organisers say. Also new is a jittery uncertainty over Hong Kong’s future, for a new extradition law in the pipeline means anyone here can be sent to China for trial. It feels as though Hong Kong is attending its own funeral.
Thirty years ago on June 4, in the early hours of the morning in Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed students and citizens who were peacefully protesting in and around Tiananmen Square. Hundreds died. The exact number has never been confirmed.
That long ago spring, I was in my 20s, like the protesters. I was a foreign student studying Chinese in Beijing. I remember bicycling to the Square, surrounded by protestors, I remember the million-strong crowds, the festivity that wrapped each street.
Hong Kong remembers too, it has remembered for three decades, every single year. As if to a family funeral, people bring their children. There are so many children in Victoria Park. They too hold the candles in cones, they too bow thrice.
For 30 years, the Chinese government has worked to scrub that shameful killing from its people’s minds and from public discourse both inside and outside China. The Chinese government is determined that its people, and the world, should see matters from their point of view.
“Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia,” writes author Louisa Lim in People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, a book that chronicles this systematic cleansing. “A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history…”
In Chinese culture, when somebody dies, it is respectful to send an elegiac wreath of flowers. The ones in Hong Kong are dedicated to the “heroes of democracy,” but this year, the images of tanks on Tiananmen Square are interlaced with Hong Kong’s 2014 umbrella movement, when students camped on streets for 79 continuous days, demanding freer elections. It’s like coming to pay respect to a corpse, only to find its yours.
Hong Kong, my current home, was a British colony until 1997, when it was handed back to China as a Special Administrative Region. Its independent governance is guaranteed until 2047, but China encroaches daily. In 2018, 51 million visitors from mainland China landed in Hong Kong, making up almost 80% of all tourist arrivals. The proposed extradition bill has caused an uproar, upending any sense of a firewall separating Hong Kong and China.
The Chinese Communist Party will not forgive the democracy activists of 1989, and it wants everyone to forget, but in that very act of expunging, the meaning of Tiananmen flickers inside millions of minds.
The Mothers of Tiananmen remember, and this year, like the others, they have record a message to thank Hong Kong for its candle-lit support. “For 30 years, the candlelight has accompanied us through difficult times and warmed our hearts,” said Zhang Xianling, who lost a son in the massacre.
The Mothers of Tiananmen, a dwindling group of mourning parents who painstakingly chronicle each verifiable Tiananmen death, regularly write to the Chinese government, even though their letters are, they say, as stones cast into the sea. “In these letters, we have formally proposed our three demands to justly resolve June Fourth, namely: truth, compensation, and accountability.”
It was not a counterrevolutionary movement, the Mothers argue. Why call it that, then term it “turmoil,” only then to revert to a “counterrevolutionary riot?”
China’s Communist Party was different in its beginnings in Shanghai nearly 100 years ago. In 1921, the CCP was an intellectually charged body, its founders referenced humanity’s great documents that protected civil liberties and human rights.
Chen Duxiu, a co-founder of China’s Communist Party, was an ardent proponent of democracy and science, he was enamoured of France, he refers to the 1789 “The Declaration of the Rights of Man,” which, he said, awakened Europeans, “as if from a dream or drunken stupor, and recognised the value of human rights.”
Chen was expelled in 1929 from the party he founded. Scholars call him communism’s first dissident. He died in obscurity, and is said to have archly commented that the word “counter-revolutionary” was simply “a weapon invented by modern Chinese to attack people who do not belong in the same clique.”
Li Dazhao, another co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in 1916: “If we look, we will find that none of the great efforts in the history of human life fails to derive from the search for freedom.”
In China of the 1920s and 1930s, the Communists were the hidden ones, the persecuted ones, the ones who stood for righteousness, for civil liberties, for freedom of speech, for freedom of assembly.
In Republican China’s Nanjing decade (1927-1937) Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government spread a lethal net to capture what they called Communist bandits. They set up a merciless espionage and torture machinery headed by spymaster Dai Li, who in turn obtained regular help from Shanghai’s notorious gangsters. The aim was to erase the Communists from history. Anyone who was a suspected communist was abducted from their homes or gunned down in demonstrations, shot on sight, imprisoned, tortured, assassinated.
History’s great waterwheel turns and irony splashes everywhere.
Today, China’s Xi Jinping has at his fingertips not just a spymaster Dai Li, he has WeChat, which provides a near-universal surveillance system of what his people are saying and sharing. In the physical world, on the streets of Chinese cities, he tracks his subjects with facial-recognition software backed by artificial intelligence.
Really, all the Chinese government today has to do is wait for death.
Wait for the ageing student leaders of Tiananmen wilting in exile overseas to die.
Wait for the Mothers of Tiananmen Square to die. Five of them died in 2018.
China’s literary giant Lu Xun (1881-1936) was deeply sympathetic to the Communist cause. He regularly wrote poems to writer friends kidnapped, assassinated, disappeared, decimated; he attended funerals in Shanghai’s June rain. One of his famous poems sounds like a Tiananmen prophesy. Here is my amateur translation, cobbled and adapted from other translations:
I have grown used to the endless nights of spring,
Collecting my wife, gathering up infants to flee, hair greyed at my temples
Inside a dream I dimly see a loving mother’s tears,
While on city walls the chieftains’ banners change.
I endure the sight of a line of friends newly turned to ghosts,
Furious, I snatch a small poem from a thicket of swords,
Intone it and bow my head, for I cannot write it down.
Moonlight makes my jet-black gown gleam wet.
Over 100 years ago, independent intellectual and magazine editor Zhang Shizhao wrote of the dangers of stifling free expression – Mao Zedong later invited him to join the PRC’s Central Research Institute of Culture and History. He said in a 1916 essay: “…if the people are not allowed to express their desires openly, they will express them in a twisted way; if they are not allowed to express them at a measured pace, they will, of course, express them by explosive means. Throughout the country’s long history, changes of dynasties and foreign invasions can be traced to such reasons…”
Amidst the flickering candles of Victoria Park, under today’s June rains, Hong Kong remembers.
Even as China’s government waits for the tale of Tiananmen to die, it is just possible that this burning memory will instead flash from generation to generation, the story will leapfrog written records and official non-accounts. With each swirl and passing it will be burnished into a brighter gold, into the colour of legend.
Mishi Saran is an award-winning novelist and author of a travelogue on the Silk Road. She has lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong.