AMAC Exclusive by Aaron Kliegman
On this day, June 4, 1989, pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing for peaceful demonstrations, as they had been doing for months. The protests were led by students, who denounced Chinese government corruption and oppression and called for greater freedoms for the Chinese people.
It was a gathering of hope and aspiration.
Then the military arrived.
The Communist Party sent the People’s Liberation Army to Tiananmen Square to crush the student protest movement, and the military massacred thousands of demonstrators and bystanders.
This show of force, China’s leaders have since tried to erase from history. Indeed, Chinese authorities forbid any discussion of the killings, let alone a memorial or commemoration. You will not find a valid account of what happened in films, textbooks, or newspapers in Mainland China. In China today, many young people are unaware it ever happened, while others now believe the crackdown may have actually been necessary.
But in Hong Kong, much to the chagrin of Beijing, there has been more leeway to remember those who died at Tiananmen and democratic China for which they fought.
That is, until now.
For years, the annual vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong to commemorate the massacre has attracted tens of thousands of people. Even last year, when Hong Kong’s police banned the gathering for the first time in 30 years (purportedly because of COVID-19), thousands of people showed up anyway.
However, this year, authorities are threatening much harsher penalties for those who participate — and not because of the pandemic. This is about suppression, bringing the rules of the mainland to a once semi-autonomous Hong Kong region.
In fact, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau warned that offenders would face up to five years in prison for attending the vigil or a year in jail for promoting it.
“The relevant meetings and procession are unauthorized assemblies. No one should take part in it, or advertise or publicize it, or else he or she may violate the law,” the bureau said in a statement. “If anyone attempts to challenge the law, including the Prohibition on Group Gathering, Public Order Ordinance, Hong Kong National Security Law, etc., the police will deal with it seriously in accordance with the law.”
The context overshadowing this new crackdown is the National Security Law, which China imposed on Hong Kong last summer. The measure effectively forbids any dissent against the Chinese government and allows Chinese authorities to shut down everything from free speech to peaceful protests.
The United Kingdom transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997 with the understanding that the territory would maintain its autonomy. In one authoritarian move, the National Security Law ended Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from Beijing.
Citizens of Hong Kong will now be much less likely to engage in any acts of mass protest, allowing the Chinese Communist Party’s erasure of the Tiananmen massacre to extend to Hong Kong.
Of course, these moves are not just about erasing the shame of what happened 32 years ago. They are about China’s leadership fighting to retain its iron grip on power today. That is why the CCP is actively working to crush any and all dissent — especially in Hong Kong, where an anti-CCP pro-democracy movement threatens Beijing’s control.
For the same reason, authorities just shut down a museum in Hong Kong dedicated to the Tiananmen protests. Publishers are revising textbooks, and broadcasters are scrubbing specific programs to adhere to the Communist Party’s narrative. And police in Hong Kong arrested dozens of dissenters and other opposition figures earlier this year.
A judge ruled Monday that the trials of 47 detained pro-democracy activists, who have been charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, will resume July 8. Most of these activists have been languishing in custody for months. One of the 47 Hong Kong journalists and former pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo was denied bail simply for speaking to Western journalists via WhatsApp.
If this situation continues, China’s campaign to erase history and crush the spirit of Hongkongers may succeed.
Here it is important for pro-democracy supporters in China — and the West — to remember not only the Tiananmen massacre on June 4 but also what happened the next day.
On June 5, 1989, an unidentified Chinese man, whose fate remains a mystery, stood alone, unarmed, in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square. Hours earlier, the killings had occurred. Yet “Tank Man,” as the unknown protester is known, was undeterred, temporarily blocking the tanks from advancing.
Wearing a white shirt and holding two shopping bags, the man brought the tanks to a halt, staring them down. When the first tank tried to move past Tank Man, he shuffled his feet to obstruct its path.
The fate of Tank Man may be an open question, but he has been immortalized for his bravery, serving as a symbol of freedom.
Thirty-two years after China’s shocking massacre in Tiananmen Square, it remains a horrific yet instructive example of how far China’s ruling Communist Party is willing to go to stay in power.
The Chinese government oppresses its people because it fears them; it fears losing power. Indeed, the Communist Party fears another Tank Man more than any American aircraft carrier. Even if the people of Hong Kong are prohibited from attending this year’s vigil, they should remember Tank Man and everyone who demonstrated against China’s totalitarian regime in 1989.
Their spirit lives on today—no doubt deep in the souls of many Chinese. The cause of freedom is eternal, and the yearning for liberty will continue — no matter what the Chinese Communist Party does.
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