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Remembering Tiananmen Square Is Dangerous, Even in Hong Kong

A museum memorializing the massacre shows the risks of countering China’s censorship, even off the mainland.

Visitors look at photographs at the June 4 Museum in Hong Kong during its reopening event in April.
Visitors look at photographs at the June 4 Museum in Hong Kong during its reopening event in April. (Vivek Prakash / AFP / Getty)

HONG KONG—One evening 30 years ago, Wu Xiangdong took his girlfriend home and then, defying orders that had gone out over state media, went to Tiananmen Square, his camera in tow.

For the past six weeks, the square—which lies at the heart of Beijing—had been the epicenter of student protests that eventually swelled into a movement of more than a million Chinese calling for democratic reform, an end to government corruption, and a better-functioning economy. Wu wanted those things, too. But he was also an amateur photographer, and what place was more important than Tiananmen Square?

The next day—June 4, 1989—the Chinese People’s Liberation Army moved in with tanks and machine guns to clear the area. A bullet from one of those machine guns struck Wu in the neck, killing him. He was just 21. When his family retrieved his body from the hospital, they found a roll of undeveloped film in his camera.

Photos from Wu’s final roll are some of the first objects you see upon entering the June 4 Museum here in Hong Kong. A few of Wu’s other possessions sit in a case alongside artifacts left behind by other Tiananmen Square victims: a bullet pulled from a leg, a pair of glasses missing the left frame. Nearby, an exhibit displays watches and silver ballpoint pens the army gave to soldiers as thanks for carrying out the shootings.

Before being pulled away by his friends, a man stands in front of a row of Chinese tanks on June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener / AP)

These items are more than just symbols of one of the most turbulent periods in China’s recent history—they are evidence that something Beijing says didn’t happen did, in fact, occur. China censors all mentions of the Tiananmen Square protests, and subsequent crackdown, domestically. The iconic photo of the anonymous “tank man” staring down a line of armored vehicles as they left the square the following day is impossible to find, and even veiled references to the massacre, such as the term May 35, are omitted from the press, public discourse, and online communication. Parents who lost their sons and daughters in 1989 can expect to be jailed for bringing it up.

Yet here in Hong Kong, which since its handover from the United Kingdom in 1997 has operated autonomously with its own laws and basic rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, annual commemorations are held to mark the demonstrations. This city is the only place on Chinese soil where the June 4 Museum can exist.

Not everyone here wants it to exist, though. Civil liberties have gradually been curtailed in Hong Kong, and the museum has not been spared, facing sustained harassment and suppression, a response reminiscent of the 1989 crackdown. This should come as no surprise. When a government’s worst behaviors officially never happened, the state has little reason not to behave in such a way again.

The June 4 Museum occupies half of the 10th floor of a cramped building in the Mong Kok neighborhood. The only sign for it is a small decal with a 64 logo in the building’s first-floor lobby. When the museum reopened in April of this year, it was met with a street protest by those loyal to the Beijing government. Someone put saltwater in the space’s electrical sockets to cut its power. The fire department showed up saying they’d gotten a call that the place was on fire. It wasn’t. But the crew’s presence briefly disrupted operations.

Kennis Tang, who serves as a museum guide, was not surprised by those events. The same thing happened in 2014, when the previous incarnation of the museum opened in a different part of Hong Kong. It had to close when the owners of the building were pressured by other tenants into declaring the museum’s space not zoned for exhibitions. It moved into and out of a series of temporary locations before the museum’s backer, the pro-democracy Hong Kong Alliance, bought the current space.

For several years after Hong Kong’s transfer back to China, Beijing made good on a promise to not interfere with Hong Kong’s way of life until the city’s full integration with China, in 2047. Hong Kong was an economic powerhouse, and mainland China, while growing fast, was wary of meddling. Little by little, as the balance shifted, that began to change. Antony Dapiran writes in City of Protest that from this reduction in relative economic power “emerged a deeper pride among Hong Kongers, based on the rule of law, civil liberties, rights and freedoms and clean and accountable government.”

In 2014, Beijing-backed changes to Hong Kong’s election process triggered months of Occupy-style protests that included as many as 100,000 people braving tear gas and pepper spray, in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. Despite the global recognition the movement received, the new restrictive electoral laws were still put in place and several of the protest leaders were jailed. There have been other signs of an erosion of freedoms as well. In 2015, Chinese state-security agents abducted five employees of a publishing house that printed and sold books critical of Beijing and detained them on the mainland; last year, a Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, was denied a renewal of his work visa here and then refused entry into the city after he interviewed an activist who supports independence from China; and right now, legislators are considering a highly controversial law that would allow the extradition to the mainland of individuals wanted for crimes there.

Such developments make clear that the legacy of Tiananmen Square is very much a present-day issue. Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge the events of June 4, 1989, has created a vacuum into which misinformation, ignorance, and revisionism have been allowed to flow. Even in Hong Kong, where information is freely available, there are those who create a false equivalency between the government’s actions in 1989 and a perceived exaggeration of the events on the part of pro-democracy groups here.

When I spoke with him, Mak Hoi Wah, the museum chairman, recounted being accosted in the building’s lobby by a man who angrily shouted that the museum had inflated the numbers killed in 1989. Mak, a college professor in Hong Kong at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, said he told the man that he should “challenge the Chinese government for the full record of the names of the dead and how they died.” One museum visitor, Pam Leung, told me that at a march a few days prior commemorating Tiananmen, an elderly woman she passed on the sidewalk yelled that the marchers were liars and that no one had died in the square in 1989. Two college students visiting the museum told me that despite growing up and going to primary school in Hong Kong, they knew of what happened in 1989 mostly from information online, which was often contradictory. (Hong Kong has been moderately successful in resisting Beijing’s attempts to dictate school curriculum here.)

“It’s important for we at the museum to hold the Chinese government accountable,” Mak said. “Because eventually they have to tell the people [what happened] by setting up a truth commission to investigate the whole thing and find out who made the decision to kill people. They need to repent for what they’ve done before China can move on in a democratic way.”

More than 50 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong last year. By contrast, the June 4 Museum received slightly more than 2,000 visitors in its first month of operation. Tang, the museum guide, told me he estimates that 80 percent of them were from Hong Kong, with the rest being an even mix of mainlanders and people from other countries. Assuming they know the museum even exists, the reluctance on the part of mainland Chinese to visit is understandable: The building has a camera out front, and all visitors are required to sign in. People from both the mainland and Hong Kong told me with certainty that “spies” are present at places where pro-democracy activity is evident.

Over the course of multiple visits to the June 4 Museum, many of the Hong Kongers I met there spoke of their time at the museum as if they were visiting not only a place, but a physical representation of Hong Kong’s freedoms. On one wall, a series of 64 photographs convey an on- the-ground perspective of the events leading up to the Tiananmen massacre. They show students on a hunger strike, marching workers and judges, the army mobilizing and moving in. Opposite of those photos, a clock counts the exact time since June 4, 1989.

“This is a physically small place, but it has tremendous importance,” said one visitor, a financial-services worker who gave his name only as Leo. He told me he traced his political conscience directly to June 1989 when he was 10, and vividly remembers his parents taking him out into the streets to march in solidarity with those doing the same on the mainland. Another, a first-year university student named Winnie, was born a decade after Tiananmen, but nonetheless said that even friends of hers “who aren’t interested in politics” will be at a June 4 vigil for Tiananmen victims in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. “Hong Kong is a good place because we still have freedom of speech,” she said. “We have to treasure it before we lose it.”

In City of Protest, Dapiran notes that as Beijing further rigs legal systems and limits meaningful elections, street protests will more and more become Hong­ Kongers’ only viable way to make their feelings known. Eventually, as in 1989, Beijing will again have to make a choice.

“In 2047, Hong Kong will be handed over,” Tang said. “Then we will have the same enemy as those in 1989.”

A moment later, he gestured to the wall of 64 photos and added: “But if we share this common memory, there is hope.”