The Communist party is widening its attack on the legacy of 1989 – and criminalising a new generation of activists

Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, on 4 June 2020.
‘Last year, tens of thousands of Hongkongers defied a Covid-inspired ban to flock to the vigil.’ Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, on 4 June 2020. Photograph: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock


Over the weekend, a diminutive, white-haired woman carrying a yellow umbrella and a homemade cardboard sign saying “32, June 4, Tiananmen’s lament” was arrested on suspicion of taking part in an unlawful assembly. She had been marching along the pavement alone. This Kafkaesque scene happened not in China, but in Hong Kong. The fate of “Granny Wong”, a 65-year-old protest veteran called Alexandra Wong Fung-yiu, underlines the rapidity of Beijing’s clampdown in the city where, just two years ago, 180,000 people attended the annual vigil remembering the 1989 killings in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

This year the Hong Kong vigil has been banned. Anyone gathering at the vigil site in Victoria Park on Friday could face five years in prison. Even publicising the event could lead to one year in jail under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security law, imposed sight unseen at the end of last June following a year of massive pro-democracy demonstrations. Public commemoration has become so risky that one Hong Kong newspaper even suggested writing the digits “64”, to commemorate the date of the protest, on light switches, so that flipping the switch became an act of remembrance. These moves underline the dangerous power of public memory, and how the events of 32 years ago still represent a suppurating sore at the moral heart of China’s Communist party.

This approach seems designed to prevent a rerun of last year, when tens of thousands of Hongkongers defied a Covid-inspired ban to flock to the vigil, where they quietly held candles aloft in socially distanced groups. At least two dozen people, including the newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai and the activist Joshua Wong, have been charged with unauthorised assembly as a result of the gathering, with some sentenced to as much as 10 months in jail. This is just one in a welter of public order offenceslaid against the territory’s most prominent politicians, lawyers, journalists and unionists, creating a kind of perp walk of conscience through the courtrooms as a generation of activists is criminalised.

Seven years ago, when I published my book on Beijing’s attempts to expunge the memory of the 1989 killings, certain China-watchers argued the events of a quarter-century before were no longer relevant to the country. But the authorities’ post-protest rectification campaign in Hong Kong makes them more relevant than ever. It cleaves so closely to the post-Tiananmen playbook that the same chilling term – “white terror” – is popularly used to describe the scale of the repression.

It includes heavy prison terms even for those who played minor roles. Last week, a student was jailed for more than four years for “rioting” after being caught on camera hitting a water-filled barricade with a hiking pole. This is one manifestation of what a now-jailed politician described to me as a “network of rhetoric” ensnaring Hongkongers. They’ve become the victims of a narrative war that is reshaping language in line with Communist party definitions.

Beijing’s post-Tiananmen strategy is also being replayed in Hong Kong in the guise of an intense ideological campaign to bring the territory’s universities, media, civil society and public servants to heel. This time round, the patriotic education of 1989 has been replaced by national security education. Six-year-olds are being taught the definition of secession through cartoons, history textbooks are being rewritten all the way back to the Qin dynasty in 221BC, and national security content is being added to chemistry and biology syllabuses.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s newspapers carry pictures of once-neutral civil servants making oaths of loyalty, with even government cleaners and lifeguards required to pledge allegiance to uphold the Basic Law.

At Tiananmen vigils round the world last year, the events of Beijing 1989 and Hong Kong 2019 were yoked together. In Melbourne where I live, alternating footage from the two suppressions flickered across large outdoor screens to create a flashing montage of state violence, as those present shouted popular rallying cries including “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!” That’s one of the protest slogans outlawed by the National Security Legislation, whose global reach is allowing Beijing to export its coercive amnesia far beyond its borders. This year, anyone – Hongkonger or not – shouting a forbidden protest slogan at a Tiananmen vigil anywhere in the world could find themselves in violation of the legislation.

This has dramatically heightened the cost of public remembrance of 4 June, especially given the tendency of security officials from China’s diplomatic missions to monitor such gatherings. Even if the law is not easily enforceable overseas, it has a paralysing effect, leaving Hongkongers in other countries weighing up a stark calculation: whether attending a vigil might prevent them from returning home. Through its actions, Beijing has weaponised historical memory to the detriment of global freedoms of speech and expression.

Open discussion of Hong Kong politics in global university classrooms has now become fraught, for students from Hong Kong or China, and for lecturers themselves. One friend at an American university told me they’d stopped teaching classes on Chinese politics, instead taking only one-on-one tutorials to ensure student safety. This immediately brought to mind a meeting I once had with a Chinese dissident, who’d asked me to come to an open pavilion on a hilltop in a park so we could see anyone approaching. Back then, some topics were too dangerous to broach in groups of more than two on the Chinese mainland. Now the same dynamics are beginning to apply in classrooms around the world. Using fear as a cudgel, China’s Communist party has succeeded in transplanting its closed discursive spaces into western academic institutions.

Beijing’s epistemological campaign will not be content with choking off public commemorations of 4 June. Following the pattern laid down three decades before, another target is the reframing of the 2019 Hong Kong protest movement as a violent insurgency driven by hostile foreign forces. So long as western countries continue to act like Hong Kong is not their problem, Beijing will be empowered not just to excise the past, but also to rewrite the history of the present.