Tiananmen Square Is a Reminder That Protest Is a Fragile Right Everywhere

Tiananmen Square Is a Reminder That Protest Is a Fragile Right Everywhere
A protester lights candles to mark the anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, outside the Victoria Park in Hong Kong, June 4, 2021 (AP photo by Kin Cheung).
The events of June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square were part of a distinct moment in time. At the heart of what took place there that day was a question of succession hovering over Deng Xiaoping, the then-paramount leader whose stewardship of the Chinese Communist Party stood at a crossroads following the death of Hu Yaobang, the CCP’s former general secretary. June 4 was an opportunity for the protesters in Tiananmen Square to communicate not only to their political leaders, but also to Mikhail Gorbachev, the then-leader of the Soviet Union who was visiting China at the time. The square was full of people from many different ideological orientations that day: students, as well as groups of socialist and liberal activists. It was also a significant moment for labor rights organizers, who gathered in the square with large signs that declared, “The Workers have Arrived,” heralding their emergence into national prominence. Demonstrators held hunger strikes, danced, conducted teach-ins and listened to rocker Cui Jian perform their unofficial protest anthem. This short-lived euphoric hope that characterized the demonstrations quickly evaporated after that day’s fateful crackdown, and many of the protesters were subsequently executed or fled the country into exile.

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This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and subsequent massacre. As with past anniversaries in China, the date is cloaked so thickly in silence that even a lipstick-selling influencer’s livestreamed cake sale was cut short because one of the desserts he displayed was shaped like a tank. Li Jiaqi, the 29-year-old influencer in question, almost certainly grew up using educational materials in school that omitted any reference to the Tiananmen Square protests. If he learned of the events elsewhere, he certainly also knew to avoid speaking publicly about them. Li later claimed that his interrupted livestream was the result of a technical glitch, though his feeds have not resumed. Li’s shutdown by Chinese censors will likely end up being a flash-in-the-pan news item, but it also serves as a bleak reminder of the weighty politics surrounding June 4, 1989, all these years later. No memorials dedicated to the crackdown are permitted in mainland China, and even veiled references to it—including the numbers 64 and 89, as well as other Tiananmen-related phrases—remain under strict and comprehensive censorship and are deleted promptly when they do appear on social media. Self-censorship and preemptive deletions have also become commonplace in China; for instance, popular role-playing games sometimes freeze profile changes in the days leading up to June 4 to prevent users from embedding political messages in them. As a result of these sweeping censorship policies, access to information about the historical events of June 4 remains limited to Chinese citizens who risk connecting to the internet through illegal VPNs or those who travel overseas. However, the overriding message from state censors to Chinese citizens is clear. It is not so much that they may not access information about the Tiananmen Square protests, but that they may not spread information or contradict official narratives about it. Above all, they must not call for in-person assemblies similar to what took place in Tiananmen Square 33 years ago. Hong Kong, once home to nighttime memorial services for the Tiananmen Square massacre that bathed the city in a sea of candles, has since seen its lights of protest and solidarity dimmed amid the crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms of the past three years. This year, areas such as Victoria Park and Causeway Bay—where memorial gatherings historically took place —were heavily policed and cordoned off, with “unauthorized gatherings” prohibited. The disappearance of vigils dedicated to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre reflects not only the pressure of the Chinese state’s silencing tactics, but also the broader state of protest and public expression in Hong Kong. Like in mainland China, the dissemination of narratives that are unflattering to Hong Kong authorities is deemed by the government to represent a primary security threat. Since the outbreak of Hong Kong’s extradition law protests in 2019, civil society groups have been dismantled, from labor unions to student groups. Prominent figures, including the musician Denise Ho and Cardinal Joseph Zen, have been jailed, joining the ranks of student leaders from the 2014 protests against the first erosions of Hong Kong’s democratic practices. With charismatic figures removed and symbols of anti-authoritarian resistance silenced, the city’s June 4 crackdown tells Hong Kongers that their government does not trust them to process history independently. But the remembrance of Tiananmen Square becomes a curious subject once it crosses over China’s borders and into Western public discourse. Popular symbols used by the students during the Tiananmen Square protests, like their colorful banners and the iconic “Tank Man” photograph, have been depicted in Cirque Du Soleil performances and fountain pen ink bottles. While the imagery of the protests and crackdown is memorable, it has become a symbolism detached from the actual difficulties that Chinese students and workers endured in 1989, and that Hong Kong vigil-keepers face today. The stirring images from June 4, 1989, now overshadow the individuals present in Tiananmen Square that day, as well as their memories and shared traumas of political work and record-keeping. Tank Man is remembered, but not the arbitrary politics that were used to enact violence on him. The legacy of Tiananmen Square serves as an often-overlooked but critical reminder for democratic and autocratic societies alike that assembly and protest is a fragile, breakable civil right. In the U.K., for instance, a new law regulating protest broadens the generalized limits on noise-making, activity and “disruption to the life of the community.” Protest in the United States is regulated at the subnational level, with some states now enacting legislation protecting drivers who hit or run over protesters with their vehicles. Western countries have not censored ice cream cakes that depict the uglier episodes and politics of their own history. However, the disruption that the Tiananmen Square protests caused is often just as necessary in the West. And it may be inadvertently buried not by censorship, but by selective memory.

Worth a Read

Though her name is not widely known, a photograph of Kim Phuc Phan Thi as a young girl is almost universally recognized as an iconic image of the Vietnam War. The black-and-white photo shows Kim running naked from a napalm attack on her village by the U.S. Army. In a New York Times essay, she writes:
Photographs, by definition, capture a moment in time. But the surviving people in these photographs, especially the children, must somehow go on. We are not symbols. We are human. We must find work, people to love, communities to embrace, places to learn and to be nurtured.

Rui Zhong is the writer of World Politics Review’s China Note. She works as a program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she conducts programming and research on U.S.-China diplomatic and cultural relations. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, WIRED magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the MIT Technology Review. She can be found on Twitter at @rzhongnotes.

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