Thirty years since the beginning of the Tiananmen protests and of the Bejing massacre that put an end to them, Hong Kong remains the only place on Chinese soil that can commemorate what happened in 1989. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organisation that has kept alive the flame of memory for the past three decades by organising the annual candlelit vigil in Victoria Park, this year will also put together an international symposium to discuss those days and their legacy.

It is a brave endeavour. Except. Of the 13 main speakers highlighted on the Alliance’s website not one is a woman. You may think that this is, in a sense, a minor point: the main issue here surely is the fight for democracy, right? Well, this has always been the attitude of the Communist Party, too, in China and elsewhere: everything is about class struggle – sort that one out, and everything else will fall into place, as if women’s struggle is a part of class struggle – an afterthought of the major concern.

That people should still think and behave this way in 2019 is both plain wrong and somewhat hilarious. Democracy without feminism is not democracy – and a macho struggle for democracy will take people nowhere.

Somehow, reflecting on this brings up old memories that I didn’t know were still so fresh, and so relevant to today.

In the late 70s, I was a child in Bologna, one of Italy’s main university towns. After the turmoil of the 60s, when the student-led mass demonstrations in France had spread to many other countries in Europe, Italy was not done with political strife. 1977 was a year like no other for Bologna: during a student demonstration on March 11, Francesco Lorusso, a 25-year-old medical student, was shot dead by the police. The days that followed saw the biggest street protests the city had ever seen, and the situation got so severe that a rather inept government decided to send armoured vehicles to patrol the streets of Bologna. I remember holding my mother’s hand at a street crossing near our home, as a column of these smaller tanks was driving past us.

I saw her worried expression and asked what was going on. I don’t remember how she answered: such a strong memory at a very young age is sensory more than rational. So I remember the feeling of my mother’s hand around mine, and the colour of the tanks and their iron-hard noise on Via Murri, a street just outside of the old city walls. Luckily, after the initial bloodshed, and unlike what I would witness 12 years later in Beijing, nobody would be injured by those armoured vehicles.

Bologna. Photo: Wikicommons.

My parents, both university researchers at the time, would often get visits from students and other young academics at home, and even if their conversations were not very interesting to me, I used to like it when the meetings of the Women’s Committee took place in our kitchen. One day, in the months of protests that followed March 1977, I went up to them proudly saying I had seen a slogan painted on a wall in the city centre with the words: “The kitchen angels are outside fighting.” I had thought this meant that there were actual angels in everyone’s kitchen, and that they had flown out the window to take part in the protests. I was told this meant that the women were tired of being defined like that. Scoffs, laughter and anecdotes ensued.

Every woman, my mother included, was quite angry at how informal student and academic meetings in people’s homes started with the women of the group being expected to prepare a meal, and ended with them expected to make coffee. How the men would draft statements, and women would have to type them. One woman present in my mother’s kitchen said she had asked a man to type a feminist statement, and was met with anger and a complete lack of self-awareness, or sense of humour, by the man in question. “They were so busy fighting for the revolution, they couldn’t possibly have time to wash the dishes!” Except that they would scold their female partners if the kitchen wasn’t clean, or if the bed was left unmade. Some of these conversations have remained such a staple between my mother and I that they are etched in my memories through having been retold countless times, not from my childhood days. But the pictures from back then still arise something strong: the women marching with their hands raised to form a triangle, and my mother telling me how they were heckled at by their male “comrades.”

The 2017 Tiananmen Massacre vigil in Victoria Park. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Because then, as at every important political juncture, women’s fight for equality was seen as a distraction: first people had to gain full democracy. Do away with repressive laws. Gain transparency in the university and better pay for workers. Now too, even in a fight for democracy, the space granted to women is still considered a peripheral subject. And surely, who would be so crude as to criticise the Alliance for not giving any platform to women speakers, when its fight has been so brave, long and thankless? Of course, it is ironic that many of the all-male speakers at the Alliance are of the same generation as my mother (shouldn’t more young people have been invited?) which allows me to indulge in imagining them joining student protests back in the day, and wonder. Did they expect their meals and coffee to be served to them by the women they were with? Who made their bed? How often did they care for the children?

I can hear very clearly the sense of unease: why criticise the Alliance, which is on the side of justice, memory, and democracy. Isn’t it, in a sense, on the side of the angels?

It isn’t a small issue. Worldwide, women have been protesting against all-male-panels, also called “manels” and some people are now refusing to take part in conferences where women are not given space too. Most of the time, this translates in women being added to the list of speakers, while nobody gets disinvited. Sexism in the remembrance of Tiananmen isn’t helpful. The group called Tiananmen Mothers, mostly comprised of mothers of victims of the army’s crackdown, is the only female group associated with the memory of 1989, as if women could be tolerated only as bereaved mothers. Yet the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square was female, too.

The Tiananmen Mothers in 2016. Photo: Tiananmen Mothers.

Of course, I do share many of their values. But if the Alliance, like those rebellious students and academics of 1977, and those from before and since, don’t realise that the angels are outside fighting, too, then nobody wins. To think that the struggle for democracy is too important to be side-tracked by that for women’s rights and equality means not having a very clear idea of what democracy is supposed to be: either it is inclusive, or it isn’t democracy at all.

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.