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Between Memory and Forgetting

Hong Kong fights to keep alive the dead of Tiananmen Square

I was sixteen when I first learned about the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. At a documentary screening at my school in Hong Kong, I watched the history of that spring unfold before me as a montage of images projected on the classroom wall over the course of an afternoon. The streets of Beijing, simmering with unrest. The students with their raw, wide-eyed idealism, flashing peace signs and calling for democracy. The rows of tanks driving into the square at night, opening fire.

Today those scenes from Tiananmen remain unknown in China. The legacy of June 4 has been systematically erased from the nation’s collective memory; most young people my age on the mainland did not learn and do not know that anything ever happened that day. It was only here, in Hong Kong, that a tenth grader could watch footage of the demonstrations in broad daylight, that a professor could talk about the brutal crackdown openly without fear of repercussion. It was only in Hong Kong that the memory of Tiananmen had been kept alive. Every summer since 1989, people have gathered at Victoria Park, a green space at the center of the city, for a candlelight vigil to honor its victims. As I left class that afternoon, I decided that I would go to the vigil that weekend, too.

I wanted to understand what had gone wrong at Tiananmen Square. I wanted to know what could’ve been changed then, what could still be changed now.

This was 2011. I arrived at Victoria Park just after sunset to find the streets stirring with a strange new undercurrent of energy. I had never felt anything like it in the city before. It was less like a vigil than a pop concert or a night-time carnival. People streamed into the park from all corners of the city—workers leaving the office, students toting backpacks, parents corralling their young children. At the entrance, they laid colorful wreaths next to a Goddess of Democracy, a replica of the original papier-mâché  sculpture once made by the students at Tiananmen Square. On the surrounding streets, pan-democrat politicians—a political alignment of parties in Hong Kong that supported greater democracy and civil liberties—chanted slogans into loudspeakers; volunteer groups distributed flyers championing their causes; and the Tiananmen Mothers, an activist group of women who lost their children to the massacre, sold T-shirts. I walked past their stall, dropping a twenty Hong Kong dollar bill into their donation box. An elderly woman smiled, handing me a small wax candle in return—lunch money for a token of her dead son.

At eight o’clock, we assembled at the recreational football pitches in the park. By the goal posts, the vigil organizers stood on a makeshift stage, leading us through a moment of silence, followed by group song and prayer, first in Cantonese, then in Putonghua and English. Bathed in the light of tens of thousands of flickering flames, we listened to the meld of voices—giddy, thrilled, almost euphoric. What was this warmth that I felt, standing among strangers in the sweaty humidity, mourning the lives of young people I never knew and would never know?

I attended several vigils over the years. I learned more about June 4, struggling to make sense of a history that I was too young to bear witness to. I learned about Deng Xiaoping’s Opening Up and Reform movement in the 1980s, a moment of sudden and exhilarating change: as a market economy was introduced, state control over culture was loosened, and for the first time, foreign ideas flowed freely into the country—from KFC to Sartre to rock n’ roll. I learned how those very reforms brought rampant corruption, widespread inequality, and the desire for political change that eventually drove the students to Tiananmen Square. I read about rival student groups: those who wanted democratic reform without challenging the Party and those who wanted the Party overthrown. I read about the factions within the Party itself: the reformists urging for compromise and the hardliners calling for crackdown. I looked elsewhere, studying democracies (what was it that birthed and sustained them?) and autocracies (why did some change while others remained stubbornly in place?). I learned the theories of intellectuals and activists, from Vaclav Havel to Martin Luther King Jr. I picked up compound nouns like civil society and grassroots mobilization and incremental reform. I wanted to understand what had gone wrong at Tiananmen Square. I wanted to know what could’ve been changed then, what could still be changed now, and who had the power to do the changing.

There was no sign that a massacre had once taken place in the city just thirty years ago.

The more I read, the fewer answers I found. No book felt as certain as the warmth of the gathering in Victoria Park. No work of theory gave me that feeling that had driven me to seek it out in the first place. In time, I came to learn that there was actually a noun for that feeling. Common sense, Hannah Arendt called it—the shared reality that allows us to know ourselves, to know how we are connected to others, and to know how we belong to a common truth. It was common sense that taught us Hong Kongers to remember, uphold, and defend a truth that everybody else had chosen to forget. It was common sense that moved me and so many others to show up to the vigil, year after year, to gather and sing and pray. Vigil: the word derives from the Latin vigilia, or “awake.” Our vigils were as much an act of mourning as one of deliberate, collective wakefulness.

Perhaps it was the imperative to remain awake that turned me into a writer, and made me decide to write about China, where so many seemed to have drifted into a still and wakeless slumber. After graduating from college, I moved to Beijing in 2018. That’s where I was last year on June 4. I spent the day in a WeWork cubicle in Sanlitun, one of the commercial centers of the city, a twenty-minute bike ride from Tiananmen Square. The day seemed to go by calm and unruffled for most civilians—though the authorities were kept busy enough. Police were sent to guard the square’s periphery. Ding Zilin, the eighty-two-year-old founder of Tiananmen Mothers, was forced to leave her apartment in Beijing for a quick, official excursion. Online, censors diligently scrubbed the internet clean of references to the day (Six, Four, 89, May 35) and its symbols (Tank, Park, People). On my WeChat feed, I found the usual stream of information: vacation photos, advertisements from the neighborhood brewery, flyers for a weekend pool party. There was no sign that a massacre had once taken place in the city just thirty years ago.

That night, I lit a candle by my bedside table. I tried to imagine its flame as one of hundreds of thousands flickering in living rooms and bedrooms and hallways—in private vigils all across the country. But alone in my apartment, it proved difficult. The common sense was missing. “We remember June Fourth because shocks to the human brain last a long time,” the scholar Perry Link wrote. “We would not be able to forget even if we tried.” That night, I began to think that forgetting was possible after all.

Nearly a year ago, a few days after the vigil last June, some two million Hong Kongers gathered for a march to protest an unpopular government extradition bill. In the months that followed, the protests would morph into a broader, more complicated and more violent movement fighting for democratic freedoms. By the time I returned in November, the struggle had reached a fever pitch: a young protester was shot, the streets were awash in teargas, and university campuses had transformed into fiery battlegrounds. It was the coronavirus that finally forced the demonstrations to cool down at the beginning of this year. And then the state quickly stepped in to tighten its grip.

Two weeks ago, China’s legislature imposed a new national security law in Hong Kong, outlawing secession, subversion, terrorism, and interference by “foreign forces.” This means that future vigils in the city could be banned, and their organizers arrested. In the case of this year’s event, the Chinese government didn’t need to take recourse to the new law; the pandemic gave it an excuse to formally cancel this year’s vigil in the name of public health.

When I heard the news, I felt nothing. In truth, I had no words to give. For the last few months, I had stared into a screen, body sinking deeper into a chair, scrolling through newsfeeds, swiping through headlines, peering into story after story playing like a surreal tragicomedy on loop. Cut off from the outside world—a place of sirens and teargas and viruses—I only wanted to withdraw. It turns out that Arendt had a word for this feeling too: loneliness. Loneliness, she argues, is the loss of our common sense, the shared reality that allows us to know ourselves, and how we are connected to others. Loneliness makes us sad and stupid, forces us to let go, withdraw, forget.

They now grieved not only for the loss of their dead sons and daughters, but for the memory of that loss itself.

Others were surely feeling lonely too. The presence of three thousand riot officers stationed around the city, in preparation for the anniversary, would have likely further dissuaded them from attempting to meet. And yet thousands of people did show up to the vigil on June 4. When I arrived at Victoria Park, just before eight, the streets were filled. Volunteers were handing out flyers, politicians were chanting slogans. People had pushed over the metal barriers lining the perimeter of the football pitches and streamed into the park. This year, there was no stage, no organizers, no mass prayer or song. People simply came, candles in hand, moved by common sense. The vigil represents common sense in its purest, physical form. So, too, do the protests that have broken out on American streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. These are occasions on which common sense is embodied, en masse. At these events, people gather to send a message: when the state peddles a lie, we will continue to live in truth, and when it isolates us from one another, we will live within it, together.

I was twenty-five when I attended what may have been my last vigil. As I entered the park, I saw the Tiananmen Mother’s booth, which had fewer members this time. Perhaps their grief was beginning to lose its sharp edges after three decades, dulled mercifully by the passage of time. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that their loss had only been compounded, doubled, widened; they now grieved not only for the loss of their dead sons and daughters, but for the memory of that loss itself. When I walked past, a woman handed me a candle, I looked at her and smiled. Yes, I wanted to tell her, I’m still awake too.