Commemorations of June 4 Influenced by COVID, U.S. Protests

On the 31st anniversary of the June 4, 1989 military crackdown around Tiananmen Square, much of the world was focused on other topics, notably the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racism protests in the United States. But within China, some people found ways to mark the occasion, both online and off. For the South China Morning Post, Mimi Lau reports on how activists in China are commemorating the protest movement and subsequent deaths while also dealing with other more immediate global crises:

“I haven’t been able to write as much as I would like in the past months during the pandemic. It’s not just my daily life that was affected but my mental capacity too, constantly occupied by thoughts such as ‘what if the US and China go to war? Will there be a global recession? Will liberalism eventually come to an end in China?’ [said political scientist and author Byron Chen Chun].

“[This] has kept any discussions about the June 4 anniversary exceptionally quiet this year.”

[…] But Zhou Fengsuo, a US-based activist and former Tiananmen student leader, said he saw a silver lining following the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What makes this year encouraging is that we saw an unprecedented number of young Chinese students showing an interest in learning more about June 4 on Telegram channels,” Zhou said, referring to an encrypted messaging app favoured by protesters and dissidents because of its freedom from government control.

Zhou said that previously mainlanders had shown little interest in talking to activists such as Wang Dan, another student leader in 1989, but the pandemic had driven more people to get over the “Great Firewall” to seek information from outside China. [Source]

At The Guardian, Lily Kuo tries to track down a young couple photographed dancing amid the protests on Tiananmen Square on June 1, 1989, and talks to those who were there about the “air of celebration” in those final days before the crackdown, and the imposed silence that followed:

On the morning of 1 June, those who stayed overnight to guard the square were relieved to find their tents and the Goddess of Democracy, erected just a few days earlier, still standing. “When they woke the next morning and the army didn’t come. There was this exhilarated feeling of, ‘we survived,’” says Mark Avery, who was the staff photographer for the Associated Press at the time, who took the picture of the couple.

That day would be one of the last moments of peace in the square. Children gazed up at the 10-metre tall Goddess of Democracy, made of wire and papier mache. Students, workers and residents talked and sang songs according to Jiang Shao, another former leader of the protests, who was there in the afternoon. “These scenarios were very rare after martial law,” he says.

After the crackdown, or the June 4 incident as it is now described in China, such scenes were expressly forbidden as authorities moved quickly to erase the chapter from the public memory.

“The thing that really floored me was the Orwellian silence afterwards,” says Avery, who stayed in Beijing until 1991, working under martial law that was kept in place until the year after the crackdown. “Afterwards, everything out of people’s mouths was the party line. Nobody was having conversations. It was just mind boggling.” [Source]

On his blog, David Cowhig has translated several documents about June 4, including a recollection by Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun about their son, Jiang Jielian, a high school student who was killed in the crackdown:

He followed the 1989 democracy movement from almost the very start. He showed great interest in personally participating. On April 15, 1989 when Hu Yaobang died, the first big character poster about it hung up on the Renmin University of China campus drew his interest. He often went to Renmin University and Peking University campuses to read the big character posters and to hear talks that students gave. On May 17 when the student hunger strike in Tiananmen Square reached its climax, he and several classmates actively organized Renmin University middle school students to participate in the million man march to support the hunger strike students in Tiananmen. That day after class ended at 4 p.m., over a thousand bicycles left the middle school. Each bicycle carried another student on the back. An army of over two thousand students rode from Renmin University Middle School to Fuxingmen and then formed ranks to march to Tiananmen, circle once around the Square and then back to Fuxingmen and home. Jiang Jielian’s bicycle was in the front ranks with a classmate riding on the back holding up high the middle school flag. When the long line of students marched from Fuxingmen to Tiananmen, he still marched at the first row of Remin University Middle School students. Together with another student they held a large banner supporting the university students’ action for justice. On the flag was written, “If you should fall, we keep up the fight!” (A female classmate who took part in that demonstration took a precious historical photograph of this scene. When she heard that Jiang Jielian had been murdered, she gave us the negative of the photograph.) He loved the red headband he wore on his forehead in the demonstration that day and so his family members put that red headband around his head at his funeral and when he was cremated. [Source]

Cowhig also translated a list of 202 people killed that night and 49 wounded. The real death toll has never been released by the government, but activists estimate that hundreds and perhaps thousands died. Ding Zilin helped create a network of family members of victims, called the Tiananmen Mothers, who each year ask the government for an investigation and redress for the killings. Human Rights Watch reported that, as in years past, members of the Tiananmen Mothers have been put under heightened surveillance in recent days. Each year as the anniversary approaches, dissidents and activists are detained, put under surveillance, and otherwise monitored, while references to the events of 1989 are tightly censored online. Yet some netizens always find creative ways to pay homage to those killed:

After meeting a with a group of 1989 student leaders and protesters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a “full, public accounting of those killed or missing.” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen also called on the Chinese government to fully and openly confront its past:

At Foreign Policy, Rui Zhong draws a parallel between the 1989 protests and those occurring in American cities now:

Despite the selectivity of this remembrance, death and dissident life are not all there is to tell about 1989. The vividness of the Tiananmen movement’s life at the hands of the Chinese people, and its subsequent death at the hands of the Chinese army and the police who hunted down the movement’s supporters throughout the country, is seldom allowed breathing room. In the moments when the young were able to dance and chant for a brief moment in that Beijing Spring, a different future was present but not one unconnected from the past. They worked with one another in the spirit of their ancestors, who rallied against emperors and warlords and secret treaties.

They found a sympathetic ear in Zhao, who was then swiftly punished by Deng Xiaoping, a leader himself once exiled by the Communist Party. In the days and years afterward, Beijing mourned its dead children, the ones who dreamed of something else, shot on Changan Avenue, at Hufangqiao, at Qianmen. So did the parents of students in Chengdu, Lanzhou, and Xian, to name just three of the cities that were crushed in the aftermath.

It has been 31 years. In the United States, young protesters pour water into their eyes to clear out tear gas and tend to their wounds, inflicted by police and a military that demand acquiescence. Black Americans, restless from the unending burdens of systemic racism, demand that their lives matter. As I see Americans marching, singing, dancing, and asking the nigh impossible from their leaders, I think back to young people in a square doing the same many decades ago. [Source]

At China Law & Policy blog, Elizabeth Lynch drew a similar parallel and dedicated her annual June 4 post to George Floyd and other victims of police violence in the U.S.

Read more about June 4 through CDT’s Reading List and a round-up of recollections, reporting, and histories compiled last year for the 30th anniversary.


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