Chinese Artist Mentions Tiananmen Massacre Anniversary in Award Speech

china-woman-protester-tiananmen-june-1989.jpg A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers, who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 3, 1989.
AP Photo

UPDATED at 12:15 P.M. EDT on 2019-05-29

Comments by a top Chinese artist have been deleted from the country's internet after he mentioned the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in his acceptance speech for a prestigious award, RFA has learned.

Zhang Yue told the audience at the 13th AAC Young Artists award ceremony in Beijing's Forbidden City that he was "embarrassed" to be standing so close to the city's iconic Tiananmen Square, the focus of weeks of mass, student-led protests calling for greater freedom and democracy under the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

He said that the tightening of controls on freedom of expression in recent years had forced him to make concessions to government censorship, as he didn't dare to make the themes of his work too obvious.

"I didn't oppose this with all of my energy, nor did I succeed in protecting freedom of expression," Zhang told the awards ceremony, in a speech that has since been deleted from China's tightly controlled internet.

"In particular, on the 30th anniversary of June 4, 1989, I feel even more embarrassed to be standing so very close to Tiananmen Square, accepting this award," he said.

Former 1989 student leader Zhou Fengsuo said that nobody in China would have heard about Zhang's comments, however.

"Now this news is censored across the internet in China. No mention outside," Zhou wrote via his Twitter account after the speech.

Fellow artist Wu Wenjian, who also took part in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, said Chinese artists have been deliberately avoiding the topic in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the massacre, when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) imposed martial law in Beijing, using tanks and machine gun-fire to target unarmed civilians.

"He spoke very well, and at this particular time and place; I found it pretty moving," Wu said. "There are brave people in all generations, but not very many of them."

Wu said Zhang could still face consequences for his speech, however.

"I'm very worried that ... it could affect his ability to get his work exhibited," he said.

U.S.-based activist Cao Yaxue tweeted that six artists from Beijing's Songzhuang art colony who were on tour showing an art exhibit called “Conscience Movement in China” have disappeared in the eastern city of Nanjing since Tuesday afternoon.

'Cause to be hopeful'

Fellow artist Ji Feng, who also took part in the 1989 movement, said he was unable to comment, as he was under close surveillance by state security police in the run-up to the anniversary on Tuesday.

"The art world is pretty complicated, with some people totally surrendering to the authorities, and others collaborating," Ji said. "There are many different kinds of artist; some are pretty spineless and never oppose the government; they just avoid the issue."

"Not many are willing to stand up and say something like Zhang Yue," he said. "Artists like Zhang Yue haven't totally lost their consciences."

He said Zhang's statement was all the more remarkable, given that he must only have been a toddler at the time of the 1989 military crackdown.

"A lot of intellectuals in China right now don't even know about it, so at least Zhang Yue has given us some cause to be hopeful," Ji said.

Zhou Fengsuo told RFA in an interview that Zhang's words had smashed through a number of political taboos in China.

"It'll make people realize that those things the Chinese Communist Party doesn't want them to think about are actually pretty meaningful," Zhou said. "His acceptance speech could actually be seen as a form of art installation."

"The artist community in China tries to avoid crossing political red lines, so Zhang's use of such a venue has shone a spotlight on a lot of people's hypocrisy," he said.

Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said he is also under police surveillance, after he laid a wreath on Tiananmen Square 15 years ago.

"[Zhang's] work is all about freedom and the games of resistance played out under an oppressive regime," Hu said. "It runs all the way through his work ... even though he had to lose some [elements] in order to be able to ... have it exhibited."

Demand for justice

Chinese police have detained, placed under house arrest or threatened dozens of activists who are seeking to mark the June 4 anniversary, as well as relatives of those killed, during recent weeks, London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.

It said hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed protesters and civilians were killed when soldiers opened fire in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 3–4 June 1989, as they sought to crush widespread protests calling for political reform.

“Thirty years on from the Tiananmen bloodshed the very least the victims and their families deserve is justice. However, President Xi continues to read from the same tired political playbook, cruelly persecuting those seeking the truth about the tragedy in a concerted effort to wipe the June 4 crackdown from memory,” Amnesty International's East Asia research director Roseann Rife said in a statement.

“The Chinese government must accept that no amount of suppression will ever erase the horror of the wholesale slaughter that took place in and around Tiananmen Square," Rife said. "A first step towards justice would be to finally allow people in China, including elderly parents whose children were killed in the crackdown, to commemorate the victims of June 4.”

Last month, authorities sentenced activist Chen Bing to three and a half years in jail after he and three other activists—Fu Hailu, Luo Fuyu and Zhang Junyong—were found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary on special bottles of a Chinese liquor.

Sichuan activist Deng Chuanbin was placed under criminal detention on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on May 18. His detention is believed to relate to a tweet he posted commemorating the Tiananmen protests, Amnesty International said.

“Time is running out for the elderly parents whose children were murdered to see truth and justice. We urge the Chinese authorities to do the decent thing and launch an open and independent investigation into the violent crackdown of 1989,” Rife said.

It called on the Chinese Communist Party to publicly acknowledge the human rights violations which occurred in the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, launch an open and independent inquiry and hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable, and provide compensation to the victims and their families.

Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lin Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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