A Boot in the Face

On Sunday afternoon, 2 June 2019, the Asian Cha blog went dark. Owner Tammy Ho Lai-Ming panicked. This was the message that appeared.

When the site went dark, Ho was busy uploading texts for a reading she was to moderate. There were less than 12 hours to go. She couldn’t delay the event. Its purpose was to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.

You remember. For 7 euphoric weeks in 1989, students across China demonstrated in favor of greater democracy, more transparency, and less corruption. Students congregated in city parks and central squares, often around a statue of Mao Zedong. They wrote poems and petitions. Their hope was to present these to the ruling Party members.

Just before midnight on 3 June 1989, the Chinese government ended that demonstration with tanks and machine guns and bayonets. No one knows exactly how many died on 4 June 1989.

Crackdown

The Chinese government bans public events to commemorate the events of June 1989. Public statements, especially on social media, can land you in jail.

Boy with toy soldier on Tiananmen Square
Boy with toy soldier in Tiananmen Square. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

Two months ago, the Chinese courts sentenced Chen Bing to a 3½ year prison term for creating liquor bottle labels. Those labels called upon the Chinese to remember the Tiananmen anniversary.

On 18 May 2019, the authorities detained Deng Chuanbin. Amnesty International believes that his crime was a tweet commemorating the Tiananmen protests.

Two days later, the police forced 82-year old Ding Zilin to leave her home in Beijing and take a vacation in her hometown Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. Ding is the founder of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of families whose children were killed during the crackdown.

In the days before the anniversary, Chinese authorities closed holes in the Great Firewall of China. On the day itself, the police presence was heavy in Tiananmen Square. Tourists were required to show ID and undergo security inspection. Foreign journalists were banned.

Resistance

Yet pockets of resistance continue to exist both inside and outside China’s borders. Chen Wei was a student organizer in the summer of 1989. She went to prison for her role in the demonstrations. The authorities jailed her again on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre for trying to host a public memorial. Chen regards 4 June as a sacred day, a day for fasting.

Holding vigil, wearing black in mourning, these acts can be suppressed and restricted. What cannot be restricted is fasting, which is possible even if you are deprived of your freedom.

Lily Guo, “‘Sacred day’: Chinese remember Tiananmen killings by fasting” in The Guardian, 3 June 2019
Tiananmen project
Image source: Human Rights in China

Human Rights in China is an NGO whose mission is to advance the institutional protection of human rights in China. Unforgotten uses information supplied by the Tiananmen Mothers to profile 64 victims of the 1989 crackdown.

Not Knowing

Tiananmen revisited
The People’s Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim. Image source: OUP

Louisa Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Her book looks at the collective amnesia surrounding the June 4 crackdown. There are many reasons for this amnesia just as there are many categories of sufferers. Take, for example, the eyewitnesses of the crackdown.

For some, amnesia was a therapeutic act of self-protection to guard against massive trauma, for others the pain was in the crushing disappointment that followed those seven euphoric weeks of hope and optimism.

Louisa Lim, Asian Cha blog, 3 June 2019

Others can claim actual ignorance. You won’t find a discussion of the Democracy Movement or its bloody end in Chinese history books. You won’t learn about it in school. Maybe you know someone who was there at the time but will you ask?

Ma Bo is a journalist and was an active participant in the Democracy Movement. He wants to talk but his son won’t listen. Zhang Shijun still agitates for democratic reform but he won’t impose his memories onto his daughter.

It’s not that we don’t want to tell her, but she had enough of her share of trouble every time our home was raided over the years

Mimi Lau and Phoebe Zhang, “Generation Amnesia: why China’s youth don’t talk about Tiananmen” in South China Morning Post, 29 May 2019

It’s not fair to say that all Chinese millennials are ignorant of their past. Nor is it fair to blame them for actively choosing not to know. It offers some measure of safety.

Matches Polished into Lights

The idea behind Tammy Ho’s reading was to honor the June 4th dead. Its inspiration came from a poem by Bei Dao called Requiem. Eliot Weinberger translated this extract. It appeared on the Facebook event page.

alone like a match polished into light 
when childhood's tunnel
led to a vein of dubious ore
to be lost is a kind of leaving
and poetry rectifying life
rectifies poetry's echo

Matches Polished into Lights called upon writers to resist. That resistance could take the form of a march, a home-made banner, or a poem. It could be standing up to remember.

It’s no coincidence that the venue for this reading was in Hong Kong. Or that its organizers are all in the business of free speech.

Thanks to the Basic Law , Hong Kong occupies a special place in China. It may now be the only place to hold a commemoration event like Matches Polished into Lights. The organizers are well aware of Hong Kong’s privilege and responsibility.

At this time when mentioning the word ‘massacre’ or even ‘incident’ in conjunction with Tiananmen will get you censored, we can do better here in Hong Kong.

@asiancha Call for Submissions on Twitter, 8 Apr 2019

Censorship

I don’t know whether the Asian Cha blog went dark because of censorship. And if it was censorship, I also don’t know whether the Chinese government is to blame.

When the Asian Cha blog went dark, Tammy Ho went public on Facebook and Twitter. Six hours and many outraged tweets later, WordPress.com restored service.

Who knows whether China pressured wordpress.com to shut down the Asian Cha blog? Or whether, upon further reflection, someone decided that a roomful of poets and academics couldn’t do much harm.

[The Chinese] government knows it can’t really stop well-connected, highly educated citizens from acquiring the information they want, in part because they’re able to travel abroad and expose themselves to a variety of materials there; and the authorities are aware that a touch of liberty is often better than a boot in the face to keep people in line.

Amy Hawkins and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “Why 1984 Isn’t Banned in China” in The Atlantic, 13 Jan 2019

The reading took place as scheduled on 3 June. The speakers included Louisa Lim, Jeff Wasserstrom, and Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Elsewhere in Hong Kong, almost 200,000 people showed up for the annual candlelight vigil. Throughout China, writers and activists and ordinary people continue to remember and resist.

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