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How China is erasing Hong Kong's Tiananmen Square memories

William Yang in Taipei, Taiwan
June 3, 2023

Authorities in Hong Kong have been actively removing books about the Tiananmen Square Massacre from library shelves to silence the past. But communities overseas are keeping the legacy alive.

Chinese students link arms in solidarity at dawn on Saturday, April 22
In 1989, Chinese students defied warnings against demonstrating and gathered by the tens of thousands in Beijing's Tiananmen SquareImage: Sadayuki Mikami/AP Photo/picture alliance

As Chinese communities around the world mark the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on Sunday, many overseas Chinese, including those from Hong Kong, are expected to attend one of the numerous vigils set to take place in different parts of the globe.

However, in Hong Kong itself, where the tradition originated more than three decades ago, there will be no public event commemorating those who lost their lives in 1989. Meanwhile, authorities in the former British colony are also removing references to the bloody crackdown on the student-led protest.

Library books being purged

In recent weeks, Hong Kong journalists found that dozens of books and documentaries related to the Tiananmen Square Massacre were missing from the city's public library database. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee defended the decision to remove certain books from public libraries, arguing that the books amounted to recommendations by the authorities.

"We must not recommend any books that are unlawful, that violate copyrights, that contain unhealthy ideas, [and] the government is obliged not to recommend books with unhealthy ideas," he said at a press conference last month.

In addition to the removal of books, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong announced last month that for the second year in a row, it will not be organizing a commemorative Mass. Last year, some members of the Catholic Church expressed concerns about violating the controversial National Security Law (NSL) by organizing a Mass dedicated to Tiananmen Square victims.

'It's really difficult for Hong Kongers to continue Tiananmen remembrance': DW's Phoebe Kong reports (04.06.2022)

Experts told DW that these efforts to erase memories or references related to the Tiananmen Square Massacre reflect the Chinese government's long history of erasing narratives that it doesn't like and changing historical events to its advantage.

"It is not content with just erasing public commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but it aims to change how people remember that period of time in Hong Kong and the rest of China," said Maya Wang, the associate director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Key leaders of Tiananmen commemorative events arrested

For more than 30 years, Hong Kong has been the home of one of the largest vigils commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre, with analysts pointing to a desire to not repeat the tragedy of the past as a reason for keeping its memory alive.

"People in Hong Kong used to consider having democracy as the best way to safeguard their own way of life in the face of the communist regime," said Eric Lai, a visiting researcher at The Dickson Poon School of Law at King's College London. Against this backdrop, Lai said the tradition of commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre reflects Hong Kongers' deeply rooted grievances and dissatisfaction toward the Chinese government.

But since the Chinese government imposed the National Security Law in Hong Kong in 2020, the vigil and almost all public events commemorating the tragic event have disappeared. Authorities used COVID-19 control measures and the NSL to wipe out all forms of public gathering related to the commemoration on June 4.

Hong Kong police detain activists on Tiananmen anniversary

In addition to the disappearance of public commemorative events, key leaders behind the Tiananmen vigil have all been arrested, detained and sentenced under national security-related charges. Chow Hang-Tung, Lee Cheuk-Yan and Albert Ho, all founding members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance, the main organization that oversaw organizing the Tiananmen vigil, have all been in jail for more than a year.

Analysts see the arrest of key Tiananmen vigil leaders as authorities setting an example through their arrest to "threaten other Hong Kong citizens."

The authorities "want to send a message that if Hong Kong people continue to hold public events to commemorate June 4 or continue to chant slogans or hold banners demanding the end of one-party rule, they will be suspected of violating the NSL," said Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo.

While Hong Kong authorities want to create a chilling effect through the arrest of high-profile activists, Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo said there are still signs that Hong Kong people want to continue the June 4 tradition in their own ways. "While people remaining in Hong Kong have paid a heavy price, I believe there are still Hong Kong people, especially those around the world, who will find their own ways to continue the tradition," he told DW.

Overseas communities 'keeping the tradition alive'

Ahead of the June 4 weekend, Hong Kong's Secretary of Security Chris Tang warned that the government would take "resolute actions" against anyone who tries to take advantage of the "special occasion" to threaten national security.

Meanwhile, a pro-Beijing group is scheduled to organize a carnival on Sunday at Victoria Park, where the annual Tiananmen vigil is usually held. The group denied that the carnival is being held to prevent any Tiananmen commemorative events from taking place.

Despite the expected absence of any public event related to June 4 in Hong Kong, Wang from Human Rights Watch and Tiananmen student leader Zhou both highlighted the importance of commemorative events that will take place around the world, as they will help to maintain the tradition and serve as a reminder of the historic event.

Even though "the end of freedom for Hong Kong is a tragedy, people in freer societies are still keeping the tradition alive," said Wang. She added that the overseas commemorative events will show that it's not easy to extinguish the desire for freedom and democracy in difficult times.

An exhibit from the New York museum showing a shirt and other objectors belonging to Tiananmen Square Massacre victims
The New York exhibition displays objects belonging to the student protesters who were massacred in 1989Image: June 4th Memorial Exhibit

The June 4th Museum recently held its official opening in New York City, hosting the world's only permanent exhibition on the massacre, including historic documents and relics such as banners, letters and a blood-stained T-shirt. It will serve as important records of the student protesters' efforts to create a "free China."

Among the historic records, there will also be one room dedicated to documenting the history of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, which includes the annual Tiananmen vigil. According to Zhou, the records at the museum will help push back against Beijing's own efforts to remove memories related to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong people in the free world will find ways to maintain the legacy of their history," he told DW.

Edited by: Alex Berry