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Overseas Communities Keep Tiananmen Memories Alive Post-HK Crackdown

Photo : Reuters

In the lead-up to the 35th anniversary of Beijing's Tiananmen Square crackdown, Rowena He, an esteemed scholar of this pivotal chapter in modern China's history, embarked on a whirlwind tour across the United States, Britain, and Canada. Her mission: to deliver a series of talks aimed at amplifying the voices of those silenced by the brutal events of 1989. With the crackdown remaining a taboo subject in mainland China, He's efforts were part of a broader movement to ensure that the memories and legacies of the Tiananmen Square protests endure.

In Hong Kong, once a bastion of commemorative freedom, the landscape has dramatically shifted. The iconic June 4 vigil, a fixture for decades, has vanished amidst the city's crackdown on dissent following the massive anti-government protests of 2019. He herself faced personal repercussions, losing her academic position after Hong Kong authorities denied her visa renewal—a move widely interpreted as a signal of the city's dwindling intellectual freedom.

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Undeterred by these challenges, He viewed her speaking engagements as a solemn duty. "We cannot light the candles in Hong Kong anymore," she remarked. "So we would light it everywhere, globally." As Beijing's political grip tightens, overseas commemorative events have become increasingly vital for preserving the memory of the Tiananmen crackdown. Across the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and Taiwan, a growing number of talks, rallies, exhibitions, and plays serve as poignant reminders of this historic tragedy.

Yet, efforts to stifle commemorative activities persist, particularly in Hong Kong. In 2021, police charged leaders of the vigil organizing group with subversion under the national security law, effectively extinguishing any hopes of large-scale commemorations. Recently, Hong Kong police arrested seven individuals for alleged sedition over social media content related to the Tiananmen crackdown. A Christian newspaper, faced with mounting pressure, opted for a stark statement—leaving its front page blank to convey the gravity of the situation.

On the anniversary itself, the park that once hosted the vigil will be transformed into a carnival organized by pro-Beijing groups—a stark contrast to the solemn remembrances of years past. Despite these challenges, the memories of Tiananmen endure, etched into the collective consciousness of a generation that witnessed the events unfold.

For He, who was just 17 years old at the time of the crackdown, the memories are deeply personal. She recalls the sense of patriotism that drove her to join the protests and the trauma of witnessing the violence that followed. "I never killed anyone," she reflects, "but I lived with that survivor's guilt all those years."

To ensure that future generations remember, efforts to preserve the memory of Tiananmen have taken various forms. In New York, a museum dedicated to the crackdown features exhibits that offer a poignant glimpse into the events of 1989. Similarly, a museum operated by vigil organizers in Hong Kong was shuttered in 2021—a testament to the challenges faced in commemorating Tiananmen within China's borders.

Overseas, memorial events serve as beacons of remembrance, accessible to mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers alike through the internet. Wang Dan, a prominent figure in the Tiananmen protests, emphasizes the importance of these events, noting their potential to influence mainland Chinese youth who navigate internet censorship using VPNs.

However, the adaptation of these memories to new contexts carries its own risks. Aline Sierp, a professor of European history, cautions against de-contextualizing these memories, emphasizing the need for careful preservation. Despite these challenges, overseas efforts continue to inspire hope and solidarity, providing a glimmer of light in the face of oppression.

In London, a theater production titled "May 35th" subtly references the June 4 crackdown, offering audiences a poignant portrayal of loss and resilience. For director Kim Pearce, the play has deepened her connection to the stories of Tiananmen, resonating with her own experiences growing up in the U.K. Theater-goers, like Sue Thomas, find themselves moved by the raw emotion and poignant storytelling, offering a glimpse into the enduring impact of Tiananmen.

As the curtain falls on another commemoration, He reflects on the power of storytelling to bridge the gap between past and present. "It shows how much suffering people had to endure all these years," she remarks, her voice filled with emotion. "If there's anything we can do, I hope that we would bring the younger generation to understand this."

June 5, 2024 3:25 p.m. 367

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