Fears for future of Hong Kong’s Tiananmen museum as activists face crackdown ahead of anniversary

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Originally published by The Telegraph on June 1, 2019 

Tucked away on the tenth floor of a Hong Kong commercial building sits the world’s only museum commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations shut down after Chinese soldiers opened fire on thousands.

The 100-square-metre room is a time capsule – a pair of glasses broken when its wearer was shot, a spray of bullets plucked from the dead.

A wall of historic photographs flanks the entrance; protest banners hang behind glass; two clocks silently count time elapsed since the massacre. 

Museum staffers mill around in black t-shirts: “The People Will Not Forget.” Even three decades later, the crackdown remains one of the most sensitive topics in China, and is still subject to government efforts to erase it from history.

The ruling Communist Party continues to resist calls to acknowledge wrongdoing and the number of deaths. 

About a hundred visitors swing by daily to the museum in the former British colony, which enjoys rare civil freedoms.

Jo Ng, 36, a history teacher, brought two dozen students for a lesson after they asked her – she recounted – “The People’s Liberation Army belongs to the people; why would they kill their own people?” References to Tiananmen across the rest of China, however, are banned and routinely scrubbed off the Internet.

As the 30th anniversary on June 4 nears, the government has launched “pre-emptive strikes” by detaining, interrogating, and placing under house arrest former protest leaders and their relatives, according to the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) , a coalition of human rights groups.

Last week, the government forced Ding Zilin, 82, whose teenage son was killed in the crackdown by troops, to leave Beijing and travel to her hometown in southern China. 

“This is a common tactic the authorities use against activists in an effort to silence them during politically sensitive periods and to make it less likely they will speak with foreign media,” said Amnesty International, a rights group.

In April, the government convicted four people for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge often levied against critics of the government – for selling bottles of liquor with labels that referred to the crackdown.

In previous years, censors have even blocked digital payments in amounts that use the numbers “64” and “89” such as 6.40 yuan (£0.70) as they inadvertently reference the crackdown date.

Efforts to squash mentions began in 1989 with propaganda giving the government’s version of events.

An original propaganda pamphlet at the museum is titled, “Quelling Counter-Revolutionary Rebellion in Beijing.”

The caption next to a picture of soldiers in Tiananmen praises them for “thoroughly winning the triumph of safeguarding the capital.”

Over the years, Chinese historians, writers, artists have tried to remember the many deaths the Communist Party would rather the world forget. It’s also getting passed on through parents like Dennis Cheung, 32, a NGO worker visiting the museum.

“I was just three years old when this event occurred,” he said. “I would like to learn more to educate my child.” For now, the June 4th Museum is allowed to stay open, though it’s been an uphill battle – earlier efforts were snarled by years of lawsuits.

Finding space was tough – some owners weren’t keen to sell property for such a politically sensitive exhibit. Its location in the congested Mongkok district is easy to get to, though remains unmarked at street level. Shortly before opening last month, the place was vandalised, and occasional protesters still line the curb outside.  

Amid protests over the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms by the government in Beijing, whether or not the museum is allowed to stay open will “be a very important symbol” said Richard Tsoi, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, the non-profit behind the museum. 

And, he said, it was important to inform people of the “tragedy and crime” the Chinese government was trying to hide. “We will not let this regime escape its responsibility.”

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