Hong Kong’s civil society is buckling under the weight of the National Security Law. Non-profits, media outlets, and advocacy groups are being forced shut, or else making the difficult decision to shut themselves down before the authorities do it for them. The latest victim of this purge is the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, founded in 1989 to spirit democracy protestors out of China following the state’s brutal crackdown. On September 9, police raided the Alliance’s June 4th Museum and arrested four of the organization’s leaders on charges of inciting subversion of state power. The Alliance disbanded on September 25.
But the Alliance’s efforts to safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital museum, delves into the museum’s mission to save truth and memory from state violence in this powerful piece for Deutsche Welle Chinese, translated here in full with the permission of the author:
September 25, 2021 is a day of shame for the history of the Hong Kong resistance, the Chinese democracy movement, and human civilization. On this day, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China announced that it would disband.
On May 21, 1989, the second day of martial law in Beijing, a million Hongkongers marched through the streets in the pouring rain, protesting the Chinese Communist Party’s armed suppression of the democracy movement. When the skies cleared, the Hong Kong Alliance emerged from the procession.
That June, when the smell of Beijing’s bloody crackdown wafted through the air, the Alliance launched “Operation Yellowbird,” secretly ferrying political dissidents on China’s wanted list out of the country and helping them find safe harbor in Western countries. The mission was one of utter devotion.
In the 30 years that followed, the Alliance organized an annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, calling for justice for the June 4 Movement and for a democratic China. At least tens of thousands of people came, sometimes more than a hundred thousand, a marvel of resistance the world over.
I have written many times about how being at the vigil has shaken me. It made me realize that in years of silence, there was a kind of voice that had left people in China, that had escaped from their bodies. We must overcome our absurd reality, restrain our internalized fear, and enter the realm of history as it ought to be. Only then can we recover our own memories.
An “Operation Yellowbird” for Historical Memory
On the organization’s last June 4 day of remembrance, Albert Ho, then vice chair of the Alliance, said in an interview, “It is the duty of the Alliance to make people remember this history.” This was the courageous, vital mission of the Alliance: to preserve historical memory.
In 2012, the Alliance set to work creating a museum to preserve material culture, literature, and news media from the 1989 democracy movement and the June 4 massacre. The exhibitions would help visitors to understand the events of 1989, safeguarding truth and memory.
Certain CCP leaders, in their immense ignorance, thought the whole thing was just one big political joke. As a ruling clique, however, the CCP is well-versed in distorting history and constructing memory.
Last year, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson spoke of recording “the correct collective memory of all mankind.” The concept of “collective memory” comes from French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who in turn drew on Émile Durkheim’s concept of “collective consciousness” to describe the process by which people’s ideas are conformed by society. Scholars followed after Halbwachs en masse, studying historical memory and historical reality, including the German scholar Jörn Rüsen, who has spent much of his career studying the Holocaust. Rüsen believes that memory can extend history—or cut it off.
There is also a discourse around the “violence of memory,” arguing that violence is behind forgetting, lies, and silence. In totalitarianism, violence to bodies and violence to memory go hand-in-hand. This point is crucial to understanding how the CCP constructs historical memory. The tanks rolling through Tiananmen did not just massacre the bodies of protesters, but also the memory of the Chinese people.
The Hong Kong Alliance’s Last Stand
At the vigil in 1996, a huge banner stretched over the stage: “Leap Over 97.” As the crowd stood solemnly with candles in their raised hands, Szeto Wah, the chair of the Alliance at the time, read his speech out word-for-word:
“Brothers and sisters who died in the 1989 democracy movement: in 391 days, our land will become part of China once again. The troops who butchered you will show their strength here; the tanks that flattened you will parade through our streets; the machine guns that shot you full of holes will be aimed at our chests. We only wish to let you know that we are prepared in every way possible for the grim test we face. We have no fear, we are at peace ….”
The National Security Law went into effect in 2020, reclassifying the June 4 vigil as an illegal assembly. The June 4th Museum was forced to close soon after. The Alliance ran a crowdfunding campaign to create a permanent space to house historical memory, the Museum of June 4 Remembrance and Human Rights [also known as the 8964 Museum]. I was honored to accept the invitation to be chief curator and build this museum along with my outstanding colleagues.
The museum seeks to counter the CCP’s manipulation and massacring of public memory by actively building memory.
On September 28, 2021, the Hong Kong authorities blocked the museum’s website within the city’s borders. In our response to media inquiries, we made it known that this was a shameful act of erasure. We believe that through the hard work of all those who resist totalitarianism, historical memory will persist across generations, living on forever in our hearts.
Back in the Hong Kong of May 21, 1989 [after the declaration of martial law in Beijing], protesters held up copies of the day’s edition of Wen Wei Po, whose entire op-ed section was taken up by one word: “Heartbroken.” It was a striking condemnation of the CCP’s brutality. Thirty-two years later, Wen Wei Po is cryptic and accusatory toward the Alliance, reiterating that the organization is implicated in violating the National Security Law—inscribing another “heartbreak” into the historical memory of the massacre!
From the day it was founded to the day it was dissolved, the Alliance “had no fear” and was “at peace.” To protect the organizations and individuals involved in China’s democracy movement, as well as civil society organizations, think tanks, and foundations, the remaining Alliance committee refused to hand over documents to the police. They would rather go to prison than give up. It was a stirring curtain call to history. [Chinese]
Translation by Anne Henochowicz.