After crackdown on Hong Kong, overseas communities carry the torch to keep Tiananmen memories alive

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.


PTI | Hong Kong | Updated: 03-06-2024 07:56 IST | Created: 03-06-2024 07:56 IST
After crackdown on Hong Kong, overseas communities carry the torch to keep Tiananmen memories alive

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 US, UK 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.

''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 US, UK, 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 organised the vigil with subversion under a 2020 sweeping national security law that has all but wiped out public dissent. 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. 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.

To preserve memories of the event, a museum dedicated to the Tiananmen crackdown opened in New York last June. A similar museum operated by vigil organisers 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, US citizens and Hong Kongers. 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-contextualising 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.

She said overseas theatre 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 theatre 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 UK 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 UK 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.

British theatre-goer Sue Thomas also found the play deeply moving. At the theatre, He, the scholar, served as one of the post-show speakers, sharing her struggles and the motivations behind her work with the audience. ''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.''

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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