THE ONLY MUSEUM dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre is located in a room on the 10th floor of a nondescript office building in Hong Kong’s busy Mongkok district. Inside, a digital counter marks the time that has elapsed since the massacre, and photos depict the weeks leading up to it. Memorabilia donated by the families of victims, including a bicycle helmet pierced by a bullet, sit inside a glass case. Some visitors congregate around a TV screen playing a documentary about Hong Kong reporters who witnessed the June 4 events, while others flip through binders filled with newspaper clippings about the crackdown.
The 1989 democracy protests began with the death of the reform-minded Secretary General Hu Yaobang. For seven weeks, students from Beijing universities congregated at Tiananmen Square—protesting, holding hunger strikes, and marching—to call for democracy, freedom of the press, and an end to government corruption. Chinese leaders took a hard-line response, denouncing the protest as “anti-government turmoil” and declaring martial law in Beijing. Meanwhile, workers and residents from all walks of life joined the students.
Everything changed on the night of June 3, when tanks rolled down the streets of Beijing, opening fire and even crushing civilians and students who stood in their way. By 5 a.m. the next day, the troops had emptied the square and left the city in chaos. “Changan Avenue, or the Avenue of Eternal Peace, Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, echoed with screams this morning as young people carried the bodies of their friends away from the front lines,” reported Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times on June 4, 1989. “The dead or seriously wounded were heaped on the backs of bicycles or tricycle rickshaws and supported by friends who rushed through the crowds, sometimes sobbing as they ran.”
In a press conference the next day, Chinese State Council spokesman Yuan Mu said an estimated 300 people had died, mostly soldiers. The actual death toll is unknown, but a declassified U.S. cable placed the death toll at between 500 and 2,600, with 10,000 injured. As Beijing hunted down leaders of the protests, a group of Hong Kong activists helped dissidents escape to Hong Kong and petitioned Western countries to grant them asylum. In total, “Operation Yellow Bird” helped 500 dissidents.
China goes to great lengths to make its people forget about the massacre. Yet on the 30th anniversary, some came to the Tiananmen Museum in order to remember. Angus Wong, a museum volunteer, said about 70 percent of visitors come from mainland China. At the gift shop counter, a group of mainland visitors discussed whether they would be stopped at the border if they purchased a flash drive filled with information about June 4. A woman with stylish short hair and large sunglasses asked for brochures that she could pass out to friends back in mainland China.
The woman in sunglasses spoke to me under the condition of anonymity, at times lowering her voice: She was a student at a Beijing university in 1989 and participated in the protests, although she didn’t go to the square on June 4, she said. She remembers her shock at hearing that the government had opened fire on the students.
This was her first year commemorating the anniversary in Hong Kong. While many young people in China are ignorant of the June 4 massacre, she and others of her generation often discuss it, she said. They also feel obligated to inform the next generation.
“It’s not sensible for the government to try to cover it up because everyone knows that it happened,” she said.
The candlelight vigil at Victoria Park illustrated the stark free-speech differences between mainland China and Hong Kong. Around the park, pro-democracy political groups set up booths and flags, with members using megaphones to ask attendees for donations and invite them to an upcoming demonstration against Hong Kong’s proposed extradition bill.
While Hong Kong is one of the few places on Chinese soil where politically sensitive topics like Tiananmen can be openly discussed, the Chinese Communist Party is constricting those freedoms. Hong Kong officials, on orders from Beijing, blocked former Tiananmen Square student leaders from entering the city to attend the vigil. Instead, the dissidents met in Taiwan with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and attended a vigil at Taipei’s Liberty Square. Yet even democratic Taiwan is feeling China’s reach: Several Taiwanese newspapers owned by pro-Beijing companies ignored Tsai’s meeting with the activists.
In the years since Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement—a 79-day protest calling for the free election of the territory’s chief executive—democracy in Hong Kong has faced defeat after defeat. In 2015, the Chinese government kidnapped five Hong Kong booksellers for publishing gossipy books about China’s top leaders. Swedish national Gui Minhai, a prolific author and book publisher, remains imprisoned today. Then the Hong Kong government disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers for the minor offense of altering oaths as they were sworn into office. A Hong Kong court also sentenced four activists—including two co-founders of the pro-democracy group Occupy Central—to prison in April on public nuisance charges for their roles in the Umbrella Movement.
The only Occupy Central co-founder to have his sentence suspended, Baptist Pastor Chu Yiu-ming, spoke to the crowd at the candlelight vigil. The 75-year-old activist seemed wearied yet determined to continue fighting for democratic freedoms. “As long as someone suffers and is humiliated, I have to voice it,” he said.