The Politics of Memory: Tiananmen’s 30th Anniversary



In Tiananmen Square, over the course of two days from June 3-4 1989, the Chinese Government deployed 300,000 troops to brutally quell student protests calling for political reform. Estimates of the death toll range from a few hundred to 10,000.

Thirty years on, civilians gathered in Hong Kong and Taiwan to mark the 30th anniversary of this horrific moment in world history. Instead of acknowledging the massacre, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) goes to great lengths to remove references of the incident from the internet, censoring any public discussion of what took place.

As every aspect of life can be politicised, so too can the collective memory of a certain event. This is called the politics of memory.

Recently, China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, defended the massacre as the ‘correct policy to end political turbulence’. The day before the anniversary, the state-run Global Times praised the government’s actions, calling them a ‘vaccination providing immunity against major political turmoil in the future’.

The CCP, in its effort to maintain its legitimacy has always censored discussion of the massace, denying that it took place. The CCP’s actions amount to a blatant politicisation of people’s memory of an event, in attempt to retain its authority. This is something that is difficult to achieve, yet incredibly powerful when administered correctly.

In the lead up to the 30th anniversary, many activists were detained and censorship levels increased dramatically. In Hong Kong, activists attended an annual candlelight vigil which was said to have attracted tens of thousands of people. Hong Kong and Macau are the only places on Chinese soil where the massacre can openly be commemorated.

This anniversary is significantly poignant for those in Hong Kong, who forever live in fear of China's growing influence. Lee Cheuk-Yan, one of the organisers of the anniversary commemorations in 2017, believes that the massacre was a turning point for Hong Kong.

‘Young people in China were demanding democracy… we felt that if they made it, Hong Kong would not have to live under an authoritarian regime. In the past we were something of an economic city, but after 1989 we became a political city’.

Those who attended the vigil in Hong Kong called for accountability for the massacre, the end of one-party Chinese dictatorship and the start of a democratic China. Although the students may have been killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, it seems that their legacy and desire for change lives on in the people of Hong Kong, where almost two million protesters have gathered in recent weeks in Hong Kong to rally against an extradition bill which would allow criminals in Hong Kong to be tried in mainland Chinese courts.

The citizens of Hong Kong won’t sit idly while China does whatever it wants, and the people of Taiwan share similar sentiments towards the massacre. Yu-Chun Tseng, a co-organiser of Taiwan’s commemorations believes that remembering the event is significant.

‘To Taiwanese people, the significance of commemorating the June 4 movement lies in cautioning ourselves of our hard-earned democracy and look to the future to safeguard Taiwan's democratic values.'

Miao Po-Ya, a Taiwanese councillor, believes that China’s lack of introspection highlights the clear divide between totalitarian China and democratic Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping claims that the ‘unshakable historic task’ to unify Taiwan with China is merely a matter of time, not ruling out the use of force if Taiwan doesn’t comply.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the military crackdown seen in Tiananmen could happen again in Hong Kong or Taiwan. For people in these two places, it is therefore all the more concerning that the younger generation of mainland Chinese are mostly unaware of the event.

A 24-year-old student from Beijing claims that the massacre isn’t a widely-known event in China. ‘I only have a vague impression of what June 4th is about. It’s rarely talked about in China and I didn’t learn it in the history books’.

The same student was unaware of the infamous ‘tank man’ photo, which became one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century.

Ultimately, its unlikely that any attempt to commemorate the event will be held on mainland China while the CCP is in power.

However, ethnic Chinese populations in Hong Kong and Taiwan have used this historical event to forge their own identities and learn their own lessons from the event. Yet, it may all prove futile if big brother China decides to use force to achieve its political goals in Taiwan or Hong Kong, in which case another inhumane massacre will be on the cards.

George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics, based in Adelaide.

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