You can’t unspill blood

Bill Weinberg writes today about the incredibly tight security in and around Tiananmen Square, along with preemptive arrests of the types of Chinese citizens that might think about doing a public vigil for the massacre’s 25th anniversary.

As he points out, such over-the-top security is in itself self-defeating. He writes:

The absurd security measures speak to the ultimate futility of trying to suppress the truth this way. The virtual shutting down of the square was itself a perverse and paradoxical commemoration of the massacre on the part of the authorities. Presumably, it caused some children to ask their parents what all the police patrols were about, ironically facilitating the passage of historical memory on to the next generation—even if those children received only veiled and guarded answers. If they were hushed by their parents, this would only serve to heighten their curiosity, and plant seeds of doubt about the morality of the system.

The Tiananmen, 2005
The Tiananmen, 2005

The Los Angeles Times has a feature about what the Square was like – police everywhere, aggressive interrogations, complete blockades for any journalists who looked curious.

This whole scenario shows to me how difficult it is to destroy any memory of 1989. Even if Chinese citizens in Beijing do not know the details of the reform movement and its fate, they know that the government remembers something. One does not radically increase security around a certain date each year by chance. Even if this whole round of arrests and intimidation keep what’s in the black box inside, no one can deny that there is a black box. And it holds something. Some of us have the luxury of knowing a few of the details, but for a foreigner this isn’t part of my national history. It’s one component of 20th century protest, and fits in alongside Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and all those other democratic surges of the late 1980’s and early 90’s. I don’t walk past the Square every morning. My June 4th wasn’t like the tourists from other parts of China who showed up and didn’t know why security was so intrusive. The black box sits in the middle of one of the largest plazas on Earth. No matter what the Chinese state does, it will insist upon itself.

You can’t unspill blood.

Tiananmen on June 4th, 1989 happened. Huge numbers of Chinese participated and survived. Some of the most riveting news photography was taken and published all over the world. People remember. Mother Jones reminds us how young and jubilant these protesters were. Overall all of China there were all segments of society, but the lifeblood in Beijing were kids. Many of whom were younger than I am now, turning 24.

You can’t unspill blood.

Tiananmen Square is the site of a tragedy, even without a single protester reminding, or informing passersby. The government is fighting reform and pro-democratic movements, both within mainland China, in Hong Kong, and all over the world. But it’s also fighting a war against the past. Though economic vitality has been used as a salve for political tension, it cannot work forever. One day the catch-up will end, and China will have the same problems all developed countries have with their pasts.

Tiananmen’s 25th

So this week is full to the brim with retrospectives about the Tiananmen massacre, and the end of the country-wide movement urging transparency and political rights in China. What makes these anniversaries unusual is these events unfolded in front of the entire world media. One reason this week has so many reflections is that many prominent journalists – in America, Europe, Asia and everywhere else – were there, and saw the movement grow, evolve, and die.

Often these pieces talk about how my Millennial compatriots in China have little or no knowledge of what happened in 1989. What isn’t much talked about is how many stories of this movement have never been recorded. It wasn’t just Beijing, it was cities all over China. Millions of people participated in at least some part of the protests. They didn’t all get shot, and most of them never even got arrested. They faded back into their normal lives and kept their mouths shut. But they still remember;  someone my age when the tanks rolled in on the night of June 3/4 are in their late 40s today. It’s not just about the victims, the dead and the disappeared. The anniversary is also about those who saw the movement dry up, and the country engage in a concerted effort to forget.

The 2014 candlelit vigil in Victoria Part, Hong Kong

Each year Hong Kong holds the largest remembrance of what happened on June 4th. They have the luxury of remembering the past, a right not afforded to their mainland counterparts.

Hong Kong- a frontline in the fight for democracy

A protester at the July 1st anniversary of Hong Kong's handover. (
A protester at the July 1st anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. (

Hong Kong has only recently entered into international focus. Several weeks ago, NSA analyst Edward Snowden began to divulge information about American surveillance programs against foreign and domestic targets. He did so from a hotel in Hong Kong, and the next month was a media circus over who Snowden was and whether he would be extradited to the United States.

Ultimately, the struggle over Snowden is not the major struggle involving Hong Kong. On July 1st, 1997, sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, which made the territory a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The agreement between the two countries made explicit that Hong Kong was to enjoy fundamental freedoms that the rest of Chinese citizens do not have. This dichotomy, part of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” policy, is reflected in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which in part reads:

Article 5 The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.

Despite these legal provisions, Hong Kong is a frontline in the battle for democratic rule and civil rights. Though this fifty year guarantee is written into law, the history of post-handover Hong Kong is not one of democratic rule. The executive head of a the area was picked by the Beijing political elite and though “Beijing has promised that Hong Kong citizens will be able to pick their own chief executive …no later than 2017 and pick an entire legislature by 2020” it would be ill-advised to expect an authoritarian state to give full democracy to a part of its people.

However, Hong Kong still enjoys more press and protest rights than the rest of China, which has led to the largest vigils in remembrance of the 1989 pro-reform and pro-democracy movement that was brutally crushed in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as well as hundreds of other Chinese cities.

Vigil in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. June 4th, 2013.
Vigil in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. June 4th, 2013 (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

July 1st has also been  key anniversary, and brings together of groups that oppose the current government of Hong Kong, the Chinese government, or lament that handover from Britain. Despite monsoon rains, at least 100,000 people marched.

A major demonstration on July 1st, the 16th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong
A major demonstration on July 1st, the 16th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong

The battle for justice and civil rights does not just go through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Burma. It goes through Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore- where highly-developed free market capitalism is stubbornly married to intrusive, strong-armed governments. Though political scientists have correlated certain types of wealth to more pluralistic and free societies, there are always exceptions.

Hong Kong is held between two worlds. The PRC every day looks more economically similar, the charade of democracy is still there. The wealthy capitalist countries of Europe have the same gleaming skyscrapers and business cultures, but they also have universal suffrage and imperfect, but working democracies.

Every great march in Hong Kong could be its last. With these calls for reform, democracy, and civil rights we see 1989 again. The failure, the blood, and promise that never again will such change be turned away with armored cars and rifle butts. This July 1st, those in the past and those yet to come, are a reminder.

The dream is not dead yet.