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The Tiananmen Square Massacre: (Politics of) Memory 35 Years Later

What is happening?

Thirty-five years ago, on the night between June 3rd and June 4th, Chinese military units brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. The Chinese leadership dispatched overwhelming force to repress the demonstrations and killed unarmed protesters and onlookers en masse. The demonstrators had been peacefully demanding democratic reforms for weeks following the death of the liberal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). Estimates of the total number of victims vary, ranging from hundreds to several thousand.

While in China, the “counterrevolutionary rebellion,” as labeled initially by the CCP, has been erased from public memory and history, the massacre is commemorated all over the democratic world.


What is the broader picture?

Unsurprisingly, citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) cannot commemorate these events at home. In the days and weeks leading up to June 4th of every year, security measures are heightened, and critics of the CCP government are taken into custody to prevent them from organizing or participating in any activities deemed undesirable by the regime.

For 30 years, the most prominent and largest June 4th commemoration event had been the candlelight vigil held in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. Many survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre found a safe haven in the city. The last vigil took place in 2019, attracting approximately 180,000 participants. Since 2020, the event has been banned, initially due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions and subsequently due to Hong Kong’s stringent national security laws. A pro-Beijing five-day “carnival” was held in the park this year instead.

Security measures in the city have also increased this year, with police patrolling the streets, especially near Victoria Park. People who tried to commemorate June 4th were detained.

“Hong Kong used to be of huge significance as a place in China where people could publicly commemorate June 4 … but now it’s no longer possible to do that.” said the organizer of a candlelight vigil in Australia who hails from Hong Kong.

Exiled Hongkongers often organize candlelight vigils around the world. This year, vigils took place in Taipei, Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, London, Manchester, Berlin, Amsterdam, several cities in Australia, and other locations.


Why does it matter?

Survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre continue to carry the memory of that night, passing it down to younger generations. Not only do these young people remember the events of June 4th, but they also bring attention to ongoing human rights violations in China, including the suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong, the cultural and political repression in Tibet, and the persecution of Uyghurs in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). The legacy of Tiananmen has thus become a broader symbol of resistance against tyranny and a call for human rights and democratic freedoms.