Hundreds of Taiwanese marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in an unusually large commemoration Tuesday that heard from witnesses including rare testimony from a Chinese soldier.
Taiwan’s commemoration has long been dwarfed by the much larger vigil in Hong Kong but this year’s anniversary enticed larger crowds than usual to Taipei’s Liberty Square.
Li Xiaoming, a junior officer in China’s military during the protests who now lives in Australia, found his voice cracking as he addressed the crowd and called on his comrades to say what happened.
“Today I speak out about history and I stand up because I hope more people… will not forget what happened on June 4 and I hope more soldiers will rise up,” he said.
Li has previously said he never fired his weapon during the deadly crackdown on June 4, 1989 because his commander kept his regiment back.
But he heard the gunfire erupt and has felt racked with guilt ever since he arrived on the square a day later.
“I felt ashamed. As an officer of the People’s Liberation Army and the role it played that day it was a disgrace,” he added.
While a handful of Tiananmen witnesses escaped overseas to tell their stories in the last three decades, very little testimony has been heard from China’s military.
‘The crackdown continues’
The commemoration in Taipei comes as relations between Taiwan and China plummet and the island gears up for a presidential election in January.
China has significantly stepped up diplomatic, military and economic pressure on Taiwan since the Beijing-sceptic President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide in 2016.
Her government refuses to acknowledge that the self-ruled island is part of “one China”.
The two sides have been ruled separately since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949 but China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to seize it, by force if necessary.
In January voters will have to choose between continuing with the current ruling party or an opposition that favours much closer ties with the Chinese mainland.
In the run up to this year’s anniversary, Tsai’s government has been much more vocally critical of China’s role in the crackdown than previously.
On Monday, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council called on China to “repent” for its role in the killings.
“How civil a country is can be seen from how it treats its citizens and how it face its past mistakes,” Tsai added in a Facebook statement on Tuesday.
The heightened rhetoric came days after China’s defence minister reiterated Beijing’s commitment to taking Taiwan by force if necessary and said Beijing was right to violently quell the Tiananmen protests.
Taiwan’s Vice President Chen Chien-Jen also made a rare appearance for a top official at the annual commemoration.
“For me June 4 is not history, it’s a reality, the crackdown continues,” Wu Renhua, a scholar and witness of the crackdown told the crowd.
The witness testimony in Taipei contrasts with that in Hong Kong where Tiananmen survivors have found themselves barred from entering by the local pro-Beijing authorities.
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