Beijing, Hong Kong differ on Tiananmen anniversary

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Originally published by The Blade on June 5, 2019

BEIJING — Thirty years after Chinese soldiers killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators in Beijing and other cities, memories of the violence remain fraught, with China detaining activists, tightening censorship, and denouncing calls for a full accounting of the bloodshed.

The 30th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters was tense in China on Tuesday, the strain heightened by a trade war with the United States and worries that Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese city that holds the largest public vigil for the dead, is losing its singular status and freedoms.

In Beijing on Tuesday, there were only hints of the violence that engulfed the city 30 years ago. Security on the square was tight, and Chinese social media services were censored more vigorously than normal.

Some artists and intellectuals in the mainland have tried to speak out about the anniversary. While accepting an award last week at the Palace Museum across from the square in Beijing, artist Zhang Yue spoke on stage about how he was “ashamed” to have made concessions to censorship in his artwork.

“As an artist, I didn’t fight hard for the right to freedom of expression for myself and others in my industry,” Mr. Zhang said, according to a copy of the speech provided by Barbara Pollack, a writer and curator who served on the selection jury for the award.

“Especially today, 30 years after June 4, to be standing so close to Tiananmen Square and accepting an award seems even more shameful to me,” he added.

News of Mr. Zhang’s speech was quickly scrubbed from Chinese media, and his current whereabouts is unknown. Yang Yang, whose Beijing gallery represents Mr. Zhang, said she had been unable to reach him.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders , an advocacy group, said it had documented 18 Chinese activists who were detained or disappeared before the anniversary, and another nine who were questioned or placed under house arrest.

The status of others is unclear. Jiang Yanyong, a retired Chinese military surgeon who treated wounded protesters in 1989, was reported in April to be in some form of detention. Earlier this year, he wrote a private letter to Chinese leaders calling the Tiananmen massacre a crime, according to Gao Yu, a Chinese journalist.

In the days leading to the anniversary, many mainland residents reported difficulties connecting to virtual private networks, which some Chinese use to access Instagram and other websites and apps that are blocked in China.

Despite the blanket of censorship and self-censorship, some in China tried to post cryptic messages of remembrance. While censors were quick to remove posts on WeChat Moments, similar to a Facebook feed, some made it through the filter. There were poems, songs, and photos of Tiananmen Square during happier times.

On WeChat, some users posted “Bloodstained Glory,” a song originally written to commemorate the People’s Liberation Army and covered by Peng Liyuan, the wife of President Xi Jinping, but since co-opted to recall the 1989 massacre. The posts were later taken down.

Others marked the anniversary privately, such as by fasting or holding candlelight vigils at home.

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists gathered Tuesday night to mark the 30-year anniversary, underscoring continuing concern for Chinese human rights, even as its own civil liberties are under threat.

Mainland tourists were among the visitors at the June 4th Museum, which was opened this spring by a pro-democracy group. They took photographs of the exhibits and discussed how to hide related books and pamphlets from mainland border officials when they returned home.

“There are too many lies and incomplete information in mainland China, so I came here for an ounce of truth,” said a man in his 50s who declined to provide his full name.

He came from the northern Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia to visit the museum and participate in the Hong Kong vigil. Organizers estimated more than 180,000 people attended that event, far more than last year. The police, whose estimate is usually much lower, said the event had drawn 37,000 people at most.

Turnout for the vigil has become a barometer of local discontent, and organizers had said they expected more people to show up not just because of the 30th anniversary, but also to vent growing anger over a government proposal to allow extraditions to the mainland for the first time.

The proposal has been criticized by foreign governments, human rights groups, lawyers, and business associations. It inspired the biggest protests the city has seen since the 2014 Umbrella Movement and scenes of chaos in the city’s legislature as opposition politicians tried to thwart its progress.

Meanwhile, at the University of Hong Kong, a dozen students laid flower bouquets at the “Pillar of Shame,” a sculpture by Danish artist Jens Galschiot commemorating the crackdown’s victims.

“Just because I wasn’t born then and never experienced the event, there’s no stopping me from reminding others like me of this and carrying on the collective memory,” said 18-year-old student Donald Chung.

Students later observed a minute of silence in remembrance of the crackdown’s victims before scrubbing the pillar clean in an annual ritual.

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