Hong Kong Artists Bring Back the Memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident

As the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident (known in the Chinese-speaking world as 六四事件, or June 4th Incident) nears, the Beijing government tightens its grip on the country to prevent any form of public commemoration. A crackdown on lawyers, rights activists and journalists launched by the leadership in Beijing will make sure that no one dares disrupt the peace and tranquillity of a political system that cannot afford to face the past, for fear that its whole edifice might crumble as soon as a word too much has been spoken. 


Even the giant Google can’t protect itself against the wall of silence, as its internet services have been partly blocked. The company has been struggling for years against China’s censorship, and its attempts to circumvent government control have not been successful

Just a few days ago, a new system of surveillance was introduced in Beijing bus stations; passengers of long-distance buses have to show their identity cards when they exit the bus. This anti-terrorist measure may also be designed to prevent suspect people from gathering at Tiananmen Square on the anniversary of June 4th. 

The collective amnesia about those wild days of experimentation with a new radical form of freedom and individual self-determination is keenly felt by some Chinese citizens who had the chance to live abroad and free themselves from the historical narrative constructed by the CCP leadership in order to give coherence to its mission as the only legitimate and enlightened government of the whole of China. 

In an article recently published on Foreign Policy, a Chinese who studied in the United States expressed his concern over the inability of the PRC leadership to allow an open discussion about the 1989 Tiananmen incident. “The 1989 Tiananmen protests,” he writes, “lack an official account or a chapter in our history books — not even a sugarcoated one for us to dispute. Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia, doesn’t contain an entry for the year 1989, and names and places such as Zhao Ziyang and Tiananmen Square are permanently or seasonally blocked on the Chinese Internet.”

He stresses that copying the Western political model is not the main objective of his criticism of the leadership’s handling of June 4th:

The immense interest among those [born after 1989] who are in the know has not translated into active discussion, let alone action. Not all of us think it was wrong to use force against the protesters. And we certainly do not all think China should adopt Western-style democracy. But whatever our views are, we dare not openly discuss them online, in public forums or even in private chats. 

But while mainland China is enshrouded in a veil of state-sanctioned silence, the tiny enclave of Hong Kong is still the only place in the PRC where the June 4th Incident can be discussed and commemorated. On April 26, the very first June 4th permanent museum opened in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui. Some Hong Kongers already took to the streets as a prelude of the Tiananmen vigil that will be held on June 4th.

Yesterday, a group of Hong Kong artists distributed copies of a 1989 edition of the Hong Kong pro-Communist newspaper Wen Wei Po (文匯報). The paper, founded in 1948, has always been known for its pro-Beijing line. But in 1989, the editors surprisingly sided with the Tiananmen protesters and opposed the use of force against them. The board was subsequently sacked and replaced by a less opinionated one. 

The artists distributed exactly this old editorial in order to bring back the memory of the events. Some passers-by were sceptical, believing that the incident happened a long time ago. Others became interested in the history of the Tiananmen protests after reading Wen Wei Po’s articles. But there were also people who didn’t know what the Tiananmen incident was about. One of the artists said that a passer-by had asked him if June 4th was the day of Hong Kong’s handover to the PRC. 


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