China Power

The Politics of Tiananmen Remembrance

In Hong Kong, Tiananmen vigils are highly politicized. But what meaning does 6-4 have for mainlanders?

The Politics of Tiananmen Remembrance
Credit: Twitter/ @angloleftie

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Discussion of June 4, 1989 remains highly restricted in mainland China, and Beijing moved early to prevent remembrance or commemoration. However, Hong Kong (as always) was proactive in remembering the violence in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.

Hong Kong holds an annual candlelight vigil on the evening of June 4. According to protest organizers, this year’s vigil was the largest ever, attracting over 180,000 people. Yet in addition to mere remembrance, the event also called on Hong Kong residents to “have the same boldness” as the Tiananmen protesters. Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, urged the crowd to support the Occupy Central movement and demand full democracy in Hong Kong. “Never forget June 4” has become a rallying cry, encouraging Hong Kong residents to continue the fight against the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, besides the traditional vigil in Victoria Park, another event in Tsim Sha Tsui explicitly called for Hong Kong to split from mainland China.

Mainland China continues to block discussion of the Tiananmen protests largely out a fear that just such a phenomenon would happen in China, with remembrance sparking renewed protests. But even with strict controls on discussions of June 4, the incident is not simply a black hole in history, as some Western media suggests. Earlier this year, the first museum dedicated to the Tiananmen Square protests opened in Hong Kong. According to a Washington Post interview with museum staff, the museum has had over 6,000 visitors since opening in April — and nearly half of those visitors are from mainland China.

Despite the official CCP silence on the subject, many of the mainland visitors that spoke with the Post already had a good idea of the events of June 4, 1989. “If you really want, you can find out [what happened],” one Guangzhou resident said. Kaiser Kuo, a longtime Beijing resident and commenter on China affairs, agrees. “I’ve never met any adult (say, over the age of 18) in all my many years here who sincerely claims to know nothing about what happened,” he wrote in response to a question on Quora.

In mainland China, the political relevance of the crackdown is far different than in Hong Kong. Kuo notes that, even among those who are most willing to embrace Western values, many simply aren’t interested in rehashing the Tiananmen protests and their violent end. Most, he argues, have accepted the ‘compromise’ offered by the CCP after 1989: “You stay out of politics, and we’ll give you tremendous economic opportunity and allow considerable personal freedoms.”

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A “post-90s” generation Chinese writing for Foreign Policy offers a similar perspective. She, like Kuo, notes that most urban and middle-class Chinese had heard about the Tiananmen incident from their teachers or parents. She also is “not eager to argue which side was right on June 4, 1989,” indicating that her personal interpretation of the event does not hinge on the morality of the crackdown. Instead, she merely hopes for the day when Chinese citizens can discuss the pros and cons of the government’s actions more freely. Right now, most young Chinese “dare not openly discuss” their views on the crackdown — even if they believe the government was right in using force to end the protests.