How does a massacre become a crackdown become an incident?

They say time heals all wounds, and so it seems that, 30 years later, a gaping laceration in late 20th-century Chinese history has all but closed.

Thanks to the Communist Party’s largely successful efforts to foster nationalism, and to censor and detain its critics, a younger generation of China’s 1.4 billion people doesn’t even know what happened on June 4, 1989. That’s when People’s Liberation Army tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, crushing a popular student-led pro-democracy movement and killing hundreds if not thousands in the process. 

june 4 tiananmen vigil 2016
A Tiananmen commemoration in Hong Kong, 2016. Photo: Todd Darling.

And what’s worse, seduced by the party’s new focus on mammon rather than Marx, they don’t care. The chase for the Almighty Yuan has replaced the old communist quest, flawed as it was, for social justice and equality.

All across the mainland, June 4 is just another business day of profit and loss.

Here in Hong Kong, however, the light still shines on the slaughter of innocents that took place in Tiananmen three decades ago. Indeed, due to the outrage provoked by a government-proposed extradition bill that could see political dissidents in this city handed over to mainland authorities on trumped-up charges, turnout for Tuesday’s annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park is expected to be at its highest in years.

Proudly, Hong Kong remains the only city in China where the bloodshed and carnage of Tiananmen are perennially remembered, mourned and condemned.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the vigil, predicts that Tuesday’s crowd will top last year’s turnout of 115,000, injecting new life into a Hong Kong tradition that has been dismissed in some localist circles as an “empty ritual” whose time has passed.

Whatever the turnout on Tuesday, you can be sure that it will be nowhere near the 1.5 million-strong rally in support of the Tiananmen protests that was staged in Hong Kong on May 28, 1989, less than a week before the PLA onslaught, ordered by China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, which cleared the square and brought a bloody end to China’s nascent pro-democracy movement.

Those were heady days of both promise and fear in Hong Kong as, under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the city’s 5.7 million people prepared for an uncertain future under Chinese rule starting in 1997.

Do the maths: nearly one-third of Hong Kong’s population hit the streets 30 years ago to voice their support for the students in Tiananmen, whom Hongkongers saw as young patriots trying to bring profound and positive change to their country.

Their hopes and dreams were also crushed when PLA troops launched their assault on the square in the wee hours of June 4 after already inflicting heavy casualties on other protesters who had attempted to block their advance through the city.

democracy massacre june 4 tiananmen
A version of the Goddess of Democracy in Hong Kong. File Photo: HKFP.

Everybody remembers the heroic Tank Man, who was filmed standing alone and resolute blocking a column of tanks on June 5—but there were thousands of others like him who risked life and limb on the night of June 3, in their efforts to turn back the PLA and keep the 10-metre papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy standing in the square.

The goddess, erected only five days earlier, would fall and, battered and broken beyond recognition, mingle with all the other refuse and rubble as the soldiers went about their brutally efficient business of clearing the square.

The protests—and the killing—continued elsewhere, but by 6 a.m. an eerie quiet had descended over an empty square that only hours before had been occupied by tens of thousands of youthful demonstrators demanding a more democratic China.

It was a massacre then and should be called a massacre now, when we see a regime sitting in Beijing that is every bit as ruthless as the one that came down so mercilessly on defenceless students in 1989. The faces and rhetoric may be different, but the aim of protecting one-party rule at all costs has not changed.

HRIC Tiananmen Square 1989
After the crackdown. Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

Predictably, after 30 years, most of the world has moved on, and the cold-blooded butchery carried out by PLA soldiers against their own people has become, if not an “incident” in name, as the Chinese leadership would have it, certainly incidental in the way many nations deal diplomatically with what is now the economic powerhouse of China. Indeed, sadly, in today’s world the horrors of Tiananmen have receded to the point of irrelevance.

Even in Hong Kong, once an older generation of witnesses has passed on, it is not difficult to imagine a future June 4 on which there are no candles lit, no speeches made and no memories of that dark day invoked.

Just another day of profit and loss for Hong Kong.

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Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.