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Candles for Tiananmen

In Hong Kong, activists, survivors, and mainland Chinese travelers commemorate the hundreds killed at China’s Tiananmen Square three decades ago

Candles for Tiananmen

Thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong for victims of the 1989 massacre in Beijing. (Kin Cheung/AP)

A sea of flickering candles on Tuesday night lit up Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, where an estimated 180,000 people gathered to remember the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago. Attendees observed a moment of silence, listened to recollections of the horrific night, and sang “Bloodstained Glory,” the anthem of the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

By remembering the tanks, the bloodied students, and the large-scale destruction of hope, the crowd in Hong Kong defied Beijing’s wishes to consign “June 4” (as the massacre is known in China) to obscurity. Instead, parents brought their children, college students chatted with friends, and elderly men and women took their seats at the vigil as they’ve done every year. Outside the park, pro-democracy political activists built on the momentum of the night, urging attendees to attend a march on Sunday protesting Hong Kong’s extradition law.

Each year around the anniversary, the Chinese government activates its enormous security apparatus and goes through great pains to ensure June 4 is like any ordinary summer day inside mainland China. Officials censor any mention of Tiananmen online, silence dissidents, increase security on Tiananmen Square, and even use their growing reach to quiet international media. They want people to forget, or at least to keep their remembrances to themselves. 

Yet those who experienced the harrowing night can’t forget. Thirty years after the massacre, the Tiananmen Mothers, a group composed of survivors and family members of victims, continues to press the government to acknowledge, investigate, and apologize for its actions. Despite government harassment and surveillance, the group has documented 202 people killed in the crackdown. It continues to seek justice even though 55 of its original members have died over the years. The group’s leaders—elderly women in their 70s or 80s—recorded a video message that was played at Tuesday’s vigil: They noted what an encouragement the Hong Kong people have been as they seek redress. 

In Hong Kong, where there is still freedom to speak openly about the Tiananmen Square massacre, people found different ways to remember. The night before the anniversary, dozens of expats and locals squeezed into a small bookstore on the 27th floor of an industrial building to listen to readings relating to June 4: Some read poems they had written, others read book excerpts. Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, read in English the preface from the Chinese translation of her book.

On the afternoon of the anniversary, I visited the only museum in the world dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The museum is located in a 1,100 square-foot room on the 10th floor of a building in Hong Kong’s Mongkok area. It includes memorabilia from Tiananmen victims, a collection of books and newspaper clippings about the massacre, and a documentary of Hong Kong journalists who were on-site during the crackdown. A steady stream of visitors passed through the museum, some Westerners, some locals, and some mainland Chinese.

By the gift shop counter, a group of mainland visitors discussed whether any of them would be stopped at the border if they bought a flash drive filled with information about June 4. A woman with stylish short hair and large sunglasses asked for more brochures that she could pass out to friends back in mainland China.

The woman in sunglasses spoke to me under the promise of anonymity, at times lowering her voice or responding in euphemisms: Back in 1989 she studied at a Beijing university and participated in the protests, but she didn’t go to the square on June 4, she said. She remembers being shocked to hear that the government opened fire on the students, especially since the protests had remained peaceful until then.

This year was her first time commemorating the anniversary in Hong Kong, and she was interested to see how people in former British colony were fighting for their own democracy. While many young people in China haven’t heard about June 4, she and others in her generation often discuss it, she said. They feel an obligation to tell the next generation what happened.

“For those of us who lived through it, we think about how it’s already been 30 years and things are getting further and further from the aspirations we had then,” she said. “It’s not sensible for the government to try to cover it up because everyone know that it happened. Truth has the greatest power.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Louisa Lim’s bookstore reading was in English.