Jun 07 2010
On Friday night I went down to Victoria Park in Hong Kong and found 150,000 people holding candles in the dark. It was June 4th, the anniversary of the state-sponsored killings of hundreds of democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen square.
I could not understand the speeches over the loud-speakers during the two hour presentation. I have few close Chinese friends, and I have never managed to have a candid conversation about what happened in 1989. Many of the people in Victoria park were not even born when the Chinese military opened fire on its own people. I know the history, from documentaries and books, but I don’t know why it should matter so much on a balmy Friday night, 21 years later.
But a hundred thousand people weeping over candles says it still means something.
I began to ask people why they were there.
“We came to learn about the history,” three young girls told me in halting English. They were secondary school students, and their teacher had encouraged them to come.
That history is not taught in mainland schools, and all mention of what happened in June 1989 is elaborately censored online — including web pages, online forums, IM conversations, and personal emails. Last year a former Chinese solider was arrested and taken from his home in the middle of the night for publishing an open letter calling for a review of the incident.
Hong Kong operates under a different constitution, and you can talk about Tiananmen here — most of the time. Last week a group of activists tried to display a statue called the “Goddess of Democracy” in front of the Times Square mall, a sort of faux Statue of Liberty that mimics a famous paper-mache figure erected by the original protesters in Tiananman square in 1989. Thirteen people were arrested and the statue was confiscated.
“It wasn’t hurting anyone,” said a man in his late 20s, who would only identify himself as “a worker.” “It’s not right for them to take it away.”
He said this was his first June 4th vigil, as it was for many others I spoke to. In fact it’s estimated that this was the biggest turnout ever, exceeding even the very first vigil in 1990, when Hong Kong citizens openly feared what the 1997 handover to China might mean for their freedoms.
This demonstration would be impossible in Beijing. Officially, the students who were calling for “democracy” remain dishonored; the Communist Party of China insists to this day that the military violence was necessary to maintain stability of the country. That’s what they say when they can be forced to talk about it at all — for the “June fourth incident,” as it’s been blandly retitled, is taboo. The June fourth incident does not exist.
And I think that’s why people keep coming. Occasionally someone I talked to used words like “freedom” and “democracy,” but when I pressed them it always came down to specifics. The statue was taken away. The Chinese government won’t talk about what happened. There was no grand ideology uniting the people in Victoria Park, no deep ideals other than this: we want to talk about it, and you will not let us.
When it comes down to it, the 1989 protestors didn’t know what they were doing. They wanted change, and they boldly called out the crimes and repression of their government during the horrors of the cultural revolution and after. But they also wanted to force students to attend demonstrations, according to later interviews. The protest movement was hardly democratic or even organized; it had no coherent philosophy and was riddled with internal power struggles. It’s easy to make the students and workers of 1989 into heroes or martyrs, but the truth is messier.
“I’m willing to keep an open mind,” one Hong Kong medical student told me. “Maybe there was no way to finish the affair without blood. But many mainland students don’t fully understand what happened that day. They need to know so they can make a careful judgement.”
Maybe that’s the sort of diplomatic language that will be necessary for reconciliation. But the history isn’t so bloodless. People died. Lots of them. People lost limbs and family and friends, and then lost friends again when everyone connected to the protests was quietly rounded up, silenced, or exiled. A series of laminated yellow posters recalled the victims, with the name, photograph and whatever is known of the story of each one. We know that some people were shot or crushed by tanks; others simply disappeared that night.
Does it help to imagine a woman sitting alone in her Beijing apartment, grieving silently for a long-lost lover? She can’t even write an email to a friend to say how she feels (try; it will bounce.) There will be no commiseration. It is not yet allowed.
And here, at last, I began to see what was denied to me as an outsider. I am not Chinese. I do not have family on the mainland — family who disappeared 21 years ago, and family who live still with the threat of a government that cannot talk about what it did. For me Tiananmen is abstract; I can make it about ideals like “freedom of speech” or “human rights” but I have no faces to attach to the violence. It was not my statue they took away.
“For me it’s a memorial,” said a middle aged man there with his wife. He wore glasses and a white polo shirt, with a camera slung around his neck. He had a slight pot belly. He said he had two children. “I have to keep coming every year until the Chinese government admits what they did, and that it was wrong,” he said.
“I may not live to see that day.”