Tiananmen Anniversary Draws Silence in Beijing but Emotion in Hong Kong

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Originally published by The New York Times on June 4, 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 semiautonomous Chinese city that holds the largest public vigil for the dead, is losing its singular status and freedoms.

On Tuesday, China denounced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement a day earlier honoring the protesters and criticizing continuing human rights abuses.

Mr. Pompeo’s statement was made “out of prejudice and arrogance” and “grossly intervenes in China’s internal affairs, attacks its system, and smears its domestic and foreign policies,” the Chinese Embassy in Washington said.

The embassy’s comments came a day after a commentary in the English-language edition of Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party, called the crackdown a “vaccination” for Chinese society “against any major political turmoil in the future.” On Sunday, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe called it the “correct” decision, after being asked about it at a defense forum in Singapore.

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, the 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 ahead of 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. 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, mainland tourists were among the visitors on Tuesday 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 Mr. He, a man in his 50s who declined to provide his full name because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Mr. He came from the northern Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia to visit the museum and participate in the Hong Kong vigil. Organizers estimated Tuesday night that more than 180,000 people had 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.

“I can feel that the space for freedom in Hong Kong is tightening, so I finally made up my mind to come,” said Lee Yuet-ting, 43, who said he was attending the vigil for the first time. He shielded his candle from the drizzle, one point of light among tens of thousands.

Organizers of the vigil had also called for greater participation from students. In recent years some student organizations have curbed their support for local remembrances of the 1989 crackdown, saying they feel little affinity with China and that the memorials divert attention from calls for democracy in Hong Kong itself.

Gigi Chow, an officer with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s student union, said rallying for democracy in China would do little to advance the cause of democracy in Hong Kong.

“Our union believes that as Hong Kongers we should focus on Hong Kong first,” Ms. Chow said.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997, closely watched the Tiananmen protests in 1989, looking for indications of the direction of their future country. For weeks in May 1989, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents marched in support of the Tiananmen protesters.

After the Chinese government’s response turned violent, residents of Hong Kong helped smuggle protest leaders to safety. Each year’s vigil is the largest public memorial to those who died.

In Beijing, where such a vigil is impossible, crowds of confused tourists were turned away from the western entrance to the square on Tuesday by security officials citing “crowd control” measures.

At the eastern entrance, the line to go through the security check stretched down Chang’an Avenue. Sightseers grumbled and began jostling with one another as the wait to go through security passed the one-hour mark.

Peng Yubin, a 22-year-old college student from the eastern city of Jinan, said she was visiting Beijing with a friend. She said she had heard of the events of 1989 but was unaware that Tuesday was the anniversary.

“We read a little about it in middle school, but I don’t really know what it was about,” she said.

Ms. Peng said she was more familiar with the Mukden Incident, which marked the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, than “64,” as the Tiananmen crackdown is referred to in Chinese for the date of the crackdown.

“My parents never talked to me about 64,” she said.

Amy Qin reported from Beijing, and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong. Katherine Li contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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