Mothers of Tiananmen Square massacre vow victims 'will not be forgotten'

Police out in force in Beijing and Hong Kong, gatherings banned at Chinese universities.
By Edward Li and Lee Heung Yeung for RFA Cantonese, Qian Lang and Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
2024.06.04
Mothers of Tiananmen Square massacre vow victims 'will not be forgotten' Relatives of Tiananmen Square massacre victims pay tribute to lost loved ones at Wan’an Cemetery in Beijing, June 4, 2024.
Courtesy of the Tiananmen Mothers

Family members of victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre called on the world to remember the night 35 years ago when People's Liberation Army troops entered Beijing and fired on unarmed civilians – despite attempts by the Chinese government to erase the bloodshed from the official record.

"History must not be forgotten, cannot be forgotten, will not be forgotten," You Weijie, spokeswoman for the Tiananmen Mothers group, said in a memorial address at Beijing's Wan'an Cemetery, where she and other bereaved relatives paid tribute to the mostly young victims of the crackdown.

"History will always remember them," You said in material shared with Radio Free Asia, listing the names of eight people whose remains are interred at the site after they were gunned down on June 4, 1989.

"Back then, with a patriotic passion and a pure heart, you cared about the future and destiny of this country, and the livelihood of its people," she said. "You hoped that the government would be honest and upright, and fight against bureaucracy and corruption." 

Public mourning for victims or discussion of the events of spring and summer 1989 are banned in China, and references to June 4, 1989, are blocked, filtered or deleted by the Great Firewall of government internet censorship.

The Tiananmen Mothers were escorted by police to the private memorial event under the government's "stability maintenance" system that aims to control the words and movements of anyone they think might cause some kind of trouble for the authorities. The area is cordoned off and no bystanders are allowed nearby.

Gatherings banned, stations closed

Universities across China have been warned not to allow any kind of gathering on Tuesday, according to screenshots of confidential notices posted to social media.

Veteran democracy activists have been placed under surveillance or taken on enforced "vacations" by state security police in recent days.

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A police officer, left, gestures to a journalist to stop as people’s identifications are examined at a checkpoint along a street near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 2023, during the anniversary of China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests. (Andy Wong/AP)

Authorities jammed mobile phone signals at the memorial event, a person familiar with the matter told RFA Mandarin, but declined to be named for fear of reprisals.

Meanwhile, Tiananmen Square, Tiananmen rostrum and Exit D of the Tiananmen East station on Beijing's Metro Line 1 were temporarily closed to the public.

A resident of the southwestern province of Sichuan currently in Beijing, who gave only the surname Liu for fear of reprisals, said there are police officers standing guard at three-meter intervals around the perimeter of Tiananmen Square, who prevent passers-by from lingering in the area.

"Phones belonging to You Weijie, [bereaved mother] Zhang Xianling and others were unable to receive calls from overseas," the person familiar with the Tiananmen Mothers' ceremony said. "There were a lot of plainclothes officers filming while they were paying tribute at Wan'an Cemetery."

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Tiananmen Mothers spokesperson You Weijie. (You Weijie)

"It was no different to previous years, except that there were more plainclothes officers," they said.

Pro-democracy activists around the country declined to comment when contacted by RFA Mandarin, saying they had been warned off speaking to the media or posting online by the authorities.

Heavy police presence in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, which once held annual candlelight vigils to commemorate victims every June 4, police were out in force around Victoria Park, the former venue for the now-banned event, after warning former organizers and pro-democracy activists not to approach the area and removing a performance artist who mimed the numbers 8964 publicly on the night of June 3.

Jailed human rights lawyer and former vigil organizer Chow Hang-tung is believed to be refusing food in prison on Tuesday, after being arrested last month by national security police over "seditious" Facebook posts commemorating this year's 35th anniversary.

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Chow Hang-tung, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, is seen inside a vehicle after being detained in Hong Kong, China, Sept. 8, 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

However, social media users in Hong Kong were still able to post images of candles and text marking the anniversary, as the city has yet to fall under the Great Firewall of blanket internet censorship by China.

Asked by journalists on Tuesday whether the topic of June 4 was now taboo in Hong Kong, in the wake of Article 23 security legislation passed in March, Chief Executive John Lee linked commemorative activities to the government's claim that the 2019 pro-democracy movement was a "color revolution" aimed at overthrowing the government.

"We should not forget the pain that we all went through in the attempted color revolution, which took place in 2019," Lee told reporters. "The threat to national security is real, and such activities can happen all of a sudden, and different people may use different excuses to hide their intentions."

He warned people to be on their guard for threats to public order. "For any activities that contravene the law, law enforcement agencies will take action accordingly," Lee said.

The Hong Kong group that organized the vigil folded in 2021, citing the changing political situation, while its leaders are being prosecuted for "subversion" under the 2020 National Security Law. No other organization has stepped up to take its place.

The British Consulate in Hong Kong on Tuesday posted a photo to its official X account of a phone flashlight being held up -- a visual reference to the use of phone flashlights at mass peaceful protests in 2019 -- along with the numbers 6.4 in Roman numerals to mark the anniversary.

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Richard Tsoi, secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, speaks to the media after the 32-year-old group voted to disband, in Hong Kong, Sept. 25, 2021. (RFA)

Also on X, the U.S. Consulate posted a photo of candles lit inside several of its windows overlooking the street on Tuesday, with the comment “Hong Kong remembers June 4, 1989.”

In Washington, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China called for the release of Chow and others jailed for their role in organizing the candlelight vigils, which were banned in 2020.

"We remember the Tiananmen Massacre each year because it is too dangerous to commemorate in Mainland China and now in Hong Kong, as Hong Kong residents are jailed for organizing or attending the annual vigil that started in 1990," CECC Chairs Rep. Chris Smith and Sen. Jeff Merkley, said Tuesday via the commission's X account.

"Charges against all should be dropped,” the post said.

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, said the anniversary was "a very dark day."

"While the streets of Hong Kong remain empty and solemn due to the authorities fearing the power of the truth on this day, those who live in freedom must uphold our responsibility to make sure that 4 June 1989 is never forgotten," he said in a statement.

"We must ensure that candles are lit and memories rekindled in every corner of the world in honor of the courage and sacrifice of those who protested in 1989,” Rogers said. “The truth must not be erased.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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