May and June are volatile months in Chinese history.
Ninety-seven years ago on May 4, some 5,000 students took to the streets of Beijing and trashed the houses of officials they despised in an attempt to protest foreign bullying, causing Chinese diplomats to refuse signing the Treaty of Versailles as the allies failed to return Shandong Province to China. The incident is known as the May Fourth Movement.
Fifty years ago on May 16, the Communist Party announced the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution followed by a decade of mass brainwashing, torture and chaos that left millions of Chinese dead. So ubiquitous was the effect of this revolution, one would be hard pressed to find someone in China today who was not touched in some way by it.
And who can forget the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989? (See June 2015 China Insight, p. 6, at www.chinainsight.info.) Many of the 1989 demonstrators identified with certain aspects of the 1919 May Fourth Movement. To this day, there are no official statistics available for the casualties from the military response to the student demonstrators that night. And to this day, there is little mention that democracy demonstrations were not just limited to Beijing. In Chengdu, Sichuan Province, protests resulted in eight deaths and numerous injuries.
Communist Party leaders and the press continue to make sure there will be no mention of these events. Kerry Brown, a Chinese studies professor at King’s College, London, said, “The issue is that of accountability … It is deemed best just to paper over the cracks and pretend everything is forgotten. The tactic now is amnesia.” It will be as if they never happened. The Chinese citizenry do not discuss them and those born after the incidents will hardly have any opportunity to learn about them. And that’s just how the Chinese government likes it!
With the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution silently glossed over, what happened this June 4?
Each year ahead of June 4, Beijing puts in place heightened tech filters to monitor and censor social media and smartphone text messages. In 2015, dozens of people deemed “dissidents” and “activists” were detained days ahead of June 4, preventing them from talking to the press or holding public rallies.
This year was no different.
The founder of Tiananmen Mothers (mothers of democracy protesters killed on the night of the bloody crackdown 27 years ago), 79-year-old Ding Zilin, was confined to her Beijing flat by security officials on June 1. Three activists were detained in Beijing after attending a remembrance event on May 31. A Chengdu teahouse proprietor was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” by sharing photos of liquor bottles labeled to mark June 4, BaJiuLiuSi (8, 9, 6, 4). Dozens of other rights activists were placed under house arrest or ordered to leave town in the last weeks of May through early June. Authorities also prevented a group of known activists from eating dinner together by placing police officers outside their homes and, also, leaving messages telling them not to attend.
Why the continued suppression of dissension? For fear of having to be held accountable for the events. The government collective amnesia will not work.
These activists want an apology. They want compensation. They long for political rehabilitation of the victims and their families. But, above all, they want accountability and for the government to release details of the bloody crackdown. And they are adamant to keep pushing for that.
The activists risk being watched constantly; yet they are determined to continue to press for the truth to be told. In an open letter published June 1, the Tiananmen Mothers wrote,
“A government that unscrupulously slaughters its own fellow citizens, a government that does not know how to cherish its own fellow citizens, and a government that forgets, conceals, and covers up the truth of historical suffering has no future.”
Leading up to this year’s June 4, Hong Kong protesters again marched in remembrance of the event, holding banners with the slogan, “Vindicate June 4” and carrying a coffin commemorating those killed in Tiananmen Square. Some held yellow umbrellas, the iconic symbol of the 79-day Hong Kong Occupy protests in late 2014.
Early June 3, 2016, members of Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats hung a giant banner measuring approximately 80 ft x 10 ft on Beacon Hill that read, “Don’t forget 6.4. See you at Vic Park.” reminding people of the annual vigil, which had been attended by tens of thousands of people each year.
On the evening of June 4, thousands (figures ranged from 21,000 to 125,000, depending on who’s counting) of attendees at the Victoria Park vigil observed a minute of silence; but they also called for Hong Kong’s independence.
Besides poking the Chinese authorities to take responsibility for the Tiananmen crackdown, to Hong Kong democracy activists, June 4 is a profound reminder of what the fight for democracy in Hong Kong may face. The violent response by the military to the peaceful student protesters in Beijing a quarter of a century ago no doubt weighed heavy on the minds of the Hong Kong student protesters of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution.
As Joshua Wong, the student leader of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution street protesters, said, “The most important aim is to tell people [at the Victoria Park vigil] the importance of pursuing self-determination for Hong Kong. June 4 launched Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The Umbrella Movement launched the next wave.”
As press freedom becomes more restrictive in China and Hong Kong, it is up to the people themselves to break the deadening silence from the Chinese government and press to ensure that horrific historical events will not be airbrushed from memory.
"In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind." Edmund Burke