One year ago, 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Standing beneath a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue once erected by students in Tiananmen, demonstrators held candles and signs to honor the thousands of Chinese citizens murdered by the People’s Liberation Army in 1989. Giant screens played videos of the protests, and an exhibition displayed images of the “tank man,” a lone figure who blocked the path of Chinese tanks, the subject of an iconic photograph.
The vigil was not just a moment of mourning. The event served as a protest against and a reminder of the censorship of all information about the massacre inside the Chinese mainland by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For decades, Hong Kong has held the largest memorial of this kind, and the symbolic nature of the gathering has only grown more poignant as Hong Kong’s unique freedoms are squeezed by Beijing.
The CCP’s whitewashing of its own history is thorough. Tens of thousands of monitors diligently scrub social media of any references to the protests, and the numbers 6 and 4 are not allowed to appear together even in unrelated news. Teachers do not mention the subject in schools, and older Chinese often avoid the topic altogether when asked about it. Only in Hong Kong and Macau, the two special administrative regions within China, have protests been allowed to commemorate the event, and this year — under the guise of fighting the coronavirus — those ceremonies are now banned.
Do Hong Kongers now share a similar fate with the protesters in Tiananmen Square? In the years since 1989, the actions of CCP leaders and especially Xi Jinping show us they believe that violence works, that dissent can be quashed, and, above all, that people can be taught to forget.
The Chinese regime is doing everything it can not just to suppress Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, but also to erase them from the official narrative. People in mainland China already can’t access accurate news about Hong Kong and are fed propaganda focusing not on the defense of human rights, but on violence and looting. If Xi Jinping had his way, no one would know or care what happens to Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms.
This new prohibition on the annual June 4 memorial comes just days after a controversial decision authorizing a Hong Kong national security bill was rubber-stamped by the National People’s Congress in mainland China. The bill would prohibit “splittism, subversion, terrorism, any behavior that gravely threatens national security and foreign interference.” Residents of Hong Kong are worried that the broad definitions of terms like “splittism” and “subversion” will be used to imprison the already persecuted pro-democracy activists and give Beijing more influence on the internal politics of Hong Kong. The bill itself is a violation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, since it was not formally passed by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and the Chinese government does not have the authority to pass such laws on Hong Kong’s behalf. The national security bill would render obsolete the “one country, two systems” policy that ensures Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and basic freedoms.
Today, the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and by protests against police brutality in the United States. Xi is hoping that the international community will give up on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy aspirations – and forget the Tiananmen Massacre just in time to stifle a new generation of civilians agitating for democratic reform.
The British government has so far taken the initiative to offer visas to almost 3 million Hong Kong residents. A similar move on the part of the United States would imbue people in Hong Kong with confidence and the knowledge that the U.S. remains a bastion of freedom and openness. It would also send a powerful message to Beijing, signaling that the United States will stand by civil liberties in Hong Kong. Further, the United States government has threatened to change its economic relationship with Hong Kong, leading to higher tariffs and greater sanctions. This move enjoys the full support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Other democracies need to step up and stand by Hong Kong’s citizens with similar declarations.
Washington also needs to reassert its role as a leader within the international community. The widespread protests in the United States and a swift response to the murder of George Floyd by an American policeman (who now stands accused of murder and manslaughter) and other violent police action can be contrasted with the lawless methods used by China against Hong Kong.
Failure to support Hong Kong today threatens freedom globally. China is acting more aggressively at home and abroad. Already, Taiwan has been battling Chinese disinformation campaigns. Chinese influence in the World Health Organization means that Taiwan has been excluded from emergency meetings and briefings regarding the ongoing pandemic. China continues to detain millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps. Meanwhile, China has used the pandemic to stoke tensions on the Indian border, and strengthen its stranglehold on Sri Lankan monetary policy.
On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, let us not forget what is happening in China today.
Thor Halvorssen is the president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. HRF is organizing “Looking Back on Tiananmen,” a live event, at 10:00am ET on June 4 at HRF.org.