UK auction house Fellows has defended its decision to sell a watch that was given to troops who took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing. However, it removed it from sale on Friday citing threats posted on social media aimed at the item’s owner.

tiananmen massacre watch
Photo: Fellows.

The watch face was inscribed with the Chinese phrase “89.6. In Commemoration of Quelling the Rebellion” and featured an image of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA)  solider, according to the listing. The website said it was given to troops by the “by the Communist Party Beijing Committee and Beijing Municipal Government.”

However, a Fellows spokesperson denied the item’s vendor was linked to the government in a response to HKFP on Friday. They said their “team undertook a large amount of research to verify the provenance of this piece” and – to their knowledge – the vendor was “not associated” with the Chinese military or government.

tiananmen massacre watch
Photo: Fellows.

“As an auction house, we often sell items with history. We believed this item is of international interest. It was a reminder of the events of June 1989,” Fellows said, adding that they had sold historical items before. “It is not our place to comment on events of the past. It is important for us to shine a light on historical events and report upon them in a respectful and unbiased manner.”

They said that they removed the watch from sale owing to “[t]hreats made on social media against the owner” which caused him to fear for his safety.

‘I feel indignant’ – survivor

The Tiananmen massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the military was deployed to crack down on protesters in Beijing.

The watch, estimated to be worth £2,500 – £3,500, was sent to the auction house by “an owner who wishes to remain unnamed.” The medal timepiece is believed to be one in a few hundred given to chosen members of the PLA. “It is likely to be one of the only watches of this kind to go up for auction in the UK,” the listing read.

HRIC Tiananmen Square 1989
Standoff between citizens and troops. Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

“This is the first time I have seen this kind of memorabilia watch,” an organiser of the 1989 student movement Liu Shiu exiled in the US told HKFP. “As a student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, I feel indignant. The Chinese Communist Party’s encouragement and rewarding of soldiers for the bloody slaughter of innocent students and citizens is an enormous dishonour for June 4 protesters… These kinds of auctions should be banned, just like the ban on medals issued by Hitler in Nazi Germany.”

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.