22 Years After Tiananmen, Shadow of Crackdown Looms Large Over China

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The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

— Milan Kundera

More than 100,000 people gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park Saturday evening to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Under the starry light of the city’s skyscrapers, the crowd lit small, white candles and lay wreaths in tribute to the dead. Remembering the massacre is a yearly ritual here. Hong Kong is the only Chinese city where the events of that summer are openly discussed and publicly remembered. In 1989, a million Hong Kong people demonstrated on behalf of the students.  They’ve gathered every year since.

The event is, in many ways, a bell-weather. Ask somebody why they’ve come and the answer will be different, year on year. In 2009, at the 20th anniversary  vigil, I met Fredrik Fan Cheung-fung, a student activist born in 1989. He’d set up shop outside a mega-mall, where he and some of his classmates held a 64-hour fast. They saw the fight for democracy in Hong Kong as an outgrowth of the demonstrations of ’89. “We want to keep their memory alive,” he said.

But, “memory” is complex, especially here. “The solemnity of recollection is tempered by anger and fear,’ I wrote in ’09. Then, people were angry about what happened and scared, in a distant way, that it could happen again. This year, amid one of the most aggressive political crackdowns in years, there was less youthful optimism on display. “Some people in China were trying to speak up,” said Cerin Yip, 28, “and they couldn’t.” So, she said, “that’s why we’re here.”

Reminders of the current crackdown were everywhere. Outside the vigil, people sold t-shirts bearing the face of Ai Weiwei, the most high-profile dissident currently being detained. There were bunches of Jasmine blossoms, too, a reference to the ‘Jasmine’ revolutions of the Middle East and the fear they sparked in China. Many people I spoke to said they wanted Beijing to know they were paying attention. “I come every year in memory of the students who sacrificed their lives for their country,'” said Dominic Chan. “Basically, we want China to know we won’t forget.”