“You guys don’t know about the massacre that happened on June 4 back in ’89?”

Nineteen years old and drunk on cheap Chinese beer, I desperately asked the question of our new friends at a downtown Beijing bar. “So none of you have heard of the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square?”

Their blank and bewildered looks answered my naive question. China had successfully constructed a great wall between the truth and its youth.

tiananmen vigil june 4 victoria park (3)
The annual vigil at Victoria Park on June 4, 2020, to commemorate victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Earlier that day over ten years ago, my friends and I had visited the notorious square. Ironically meaning “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”, the name Tiananmen has always been associated with state-sanctioned murder for Hong Kong millennials such as myself.

But the Tiananmen Square that I saw bore no trace of the bloodshed of that revolutionary late-spring. It bustled with lovers taking selfies, hipsters burdened by shopping bags, bored food vendors dozing under big umbrellas, construction workers chain-smoking during a break, tired students dragging themselves off the bus after a long school day.

The bloodstains of all the nameless heroes who sacrificed themselves for their country had been thoroughly washed away by China’s economic triumph in the decades since 1989.

We were standing on the very same grey tiles on which the largest student movement in modern-day China was born, and later crushed. Yet under the permanent grey fog of economic success, and the gaze of CCTV cameras covering every inch of this Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijingers went about their daily lives as if nothing unspeakable had ever happened on the ground beneath our feet.

Tiananmen Square in 1988. Photo: Wikicommons.

Our young Chinese friends’ complete ignorance of a massacre that occurred during their lifetime was the result of the last generation’s tacit agreement to live in a state of collective amnesia. But later that night, I did find one person who had not forgotten.  

“How did you find out about this? You’re only a kid and you’re not even from here!” The bartender must have been around 60 years old. Until I arrived he had not heard anyone speak of the killings for well over a decade. “Nobody here wants to remember any more.”

Over in Hong Kong, none of it has been forgotten, I reassured him. “Every year without fail, we still hold a mass candlelight vigil for all the martyrs of Tiananmen.” Sadly, I could not make that statement today.

After a couple of whiskies on the house, my already-appalling Mandarin was becoming utterly unintelligible, so the bartender and I found it easier to communicate in written Chinese. But not long after our conversation had moved onto the back of beer coasters, he suddenly became frightened.  

candle tiananmen vigil june 4 victoria park 2020
Photo: Sam Lee/United Social Press.

“The party had made a decision for the good of the country. It was for the stability and prosperity which we all enjoy now,” he wrote as he began to scribble regurgitated propaganda.

Pointing to the bar’s cheap pink and blue neon lights, I wrote in furious disbelief: “But you don’t really think that it was worth it to take all those young lives, just so we could have… this! Do you?”   

The old bartender put down the pen. A single tear rolled down his cheek, reflecting the flashing disco lights. I tore up the beer coasters in silence, and tightly held his cold, trembling hand in mine.

Just over a decade later, the same story is threatening to repeat itself in Hong Kong.

Last September, at the height of the anti-government protests, the Education Bureau launched a “professional consultancy service” specifically to review textbooks on the subject of Liberal Studies — a high school course which according to Carrie Lam, Beijing officials, and pro-China politicians helped incite the political unrest.

Liberal studies textbooks
Photo: via discuss.com.hk.

After voluntarily submitting textbooks for review, several publishers were advised last week that certain content had to be modified or even removed, if the volumes were to appear on the “recommended book list” on the bureau’s website.

An incredibly wide range of subjects was censored, from an innocent discussion of the constitutional idea of the “separation of powers”, to a photograph of a “Lennon Wall”.

Explanations of the concept of “civil disobedience” were, of course, scrapped, and some textbooks even added “warnings” of potential legal consequences that can occur when engaging in such activities.

Cartoons showing police officers with batons and pepper sprays, and protest banners reading “Safeguard Freedom of Speech” and “Protesting is No Crime” have all been canned as well.

On political topics outside of Hong Kong, even a mention of the Arab Spring could not escape censorship; Taiwan became listed as “Taiwan Province”; and the infamous tanks of Tiananmen Square, along with the young man who stood in front of them, were literally made to “disappear” from an illustration.

june 4 museum tank man
A reprint of the tank man at the June 4 Museum. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

China’s “Tank Man” lived on in all of our hearts in Hong Kong. But when our teachers are being threatened, our textbooks are being rewritten, and our annual candlelight vigil is being forbidden, will there be anyone left to remember the sons and daughters of Tianamen? Will there even be anyone to remember Hong Kong’s own freedom fighters?

The answer depends on every single one of us. Liberal Studies was not a part of Hong Kong’s school curriculum when I was young (it was introduced in 2009). But thanks to my parents who never ceased to keep me informed, I was never oblivious to the truth about the 1989 massacre, or the injustices present in Hong Kong’s unique political reality.

Today, as a Hongkonger with no children, I offer free sessions via Zoom on Liberal Studies topics to all my students, even though I am only a private language tutor. Those who do have children must also help us ensure that young Hongkongers’ connection to their own history will not be severed by the encroaching political censorship.

As our struggles are being driven underground, we must keep the revolutionary embers glowing for the next generation, until conditions allow our fight for freedom to burn like wildfire once again – whenever that might be.

When formal education fails to teach our children the basic facts of the world they live in, it becomes our responsibility to step in and educate them in the private domain. Truth will be the only vehicle that can take the next generation out of the dark era befalling our city.

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Christina Chan is an activist who was a part of the Hong Kong post-80s movement. A graduate in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Hong Kong, she now lives in exile where she is heavily involved with permaculture and continues to keep an eye on Hong Kong affairs.