As the memory dims and the lights are extinguished, it's more important than ever to remember the 4th of June, 1989, when the Chinese army crushed student dreams
On June 4, 1989, the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) moved in on the peaceful protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The massed students had been gathered for weeks, pushing for the country’s leadership to take action on a range of grievances. Their wide-ranging demands included demanding the introduction of democracy and guaranteeing individual rights and freedoms, anger against corruption relating to the new market reforms, and disgust with nepotism (known as princelings, the supposedly egalitarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has frequently promoted the children of its former leaders to prominent positions, case in point: Xi Jinping).
Inspired by the revolutions taking place across Eastern Europe, the youth assembled in such numbers that it is reckoned at one point a million people were protesting. As the protests spread to 400 cities across China, the CCP leaders - stunned at this very real challenge to their power (in East Germany, the wall came down later that year) - debated what action they should take. Some elders demanded the students be crushed, while more moderate voices advocated discussion and engagement. After vociferous discussion, the hardliners won out and the soldiers were sent in. With martial law declared, and 300,000 troops on the streets, the end was inevitable as it was tragic.
On the early morning of 4 June, Tiananmen Square and the streets around it were violently cleared by soldiers with guns and supported by tanks, with hundreds if not thousands massacred. The communist party has never been challenged in this way since, with firm limits on personal freedoms, and the installation of a security state which now tracks the actions of every citizen. In the decades after, there was only one place in China where the events of ‘8964’ were commemorated, let alone remembered.
In Hong Kong, both before and after the Handover, tens of thousands gathered every year at Victoria Park in a candlelight vigil, with moving songs and speeches never letting the light go out on Chinese democracy. At least, that was the case until 2020. Using Covid as an excuse, the government banned the mass gathering, then just a month later passed national security legislation, which ensured the protest would never be allowed again. Last year, after 32 years of vigils, the park was empty. In China, at least, public commemoration of June 4th is over - but it’s not forgotten.
I remember 4 June for one other reason - it was my father’s birthday. Happy birthday dad.