x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A new home to keep the flame of Tiananmen Square alive

In an apartment block above a bustling market district of Hong Kong, a replica of the Goddess of Democracy forms the centrepiece of a new museum commemorating the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989.

A replica of the Goddess of Democracy forms the centrepiece of a new museum marking the 1989 protests.
A replica of the Goddess of Democracy forms the centrepiece of a new museum marking the 1989 protests.

HONG KONG // She stands tall, holding a burning torch, a symbol of a movement for democracy snuffed out by force more than two decades ago.

Here in an apartment block above a bustling market district of Hong Kong, a replica of the Goddess of Democracy forms the centrepiece of a new museum commemorating the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989.

With videos, photographs and witness testimony, campaigners are trying to ensure that the young people of Hong Kong learn or remember the turbulent events in Beijing almost 23 years ago.

Back then, the original Goddess of Democracy, a 10-metre-tall construction made from papier-mâché by students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, took pride of place amid the thousands of demonstrators in the square calling for political reform. Its toppling symbolised the army crackdown that cleared the square and in which hundreds are believed to have been killed.

"It's important we let the younger generation know the background, hoping they will share our concern. [We are] hoping to have an investigation to see who should be held responsible for the massacre," said Richard Tsoi, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which set up the June 4 Memorial Museum, said: "Twenty-three years after what happened, the new generation probably don't have feeling and knowledge about the situation."

In mainland China, state media never discuss the Tiananmen Square crackdown and online searches on the subject are blocked.

By contrast, ever since 1 million Hong Kong residents took to the streets 1989 in support of the protests, the special administrative region has held large annual public gatherings to remember those who died and to push for political reform in China.

The musuem, thought to be the first of its kind in Hong Kong when it opened last month, is only temporary and will close on June 10, but campaigners hope eventually to create a permanent museum in its place.

Pinned to the wall are messages from visitors, written in Chinese characters on paper cut into the shape of the Goddess of Democracy. "Democracy and freedom will never die," stated one note, while another said, "We can forgive them but we can never forget".

Black-and-white photographs show the smiling faces of some of those killed in the June 4 crackdown. One wall features images of victims while they were alive, and beside them photographs of their corpses.

The museum has been attracting about 250 people a day on average, among them groups of schoolchildren.

Organisers have been especially keen for mainland Chinese, 28 million of whom travelled to Hong Kong last year, to take in the exhibits, although only mainlanders with software to get around Chinese censorship can learn of the museum's existence from the internet.

"Normally the mainland people are very interested to learn the details, particularly because they don't have the chance to have this kind of information," said Mr Tsoi.

Many Chinese people know more about the depredations their country suffered at the hands of European powers in the mid-19th century, or the actions of Japanese invaders in the 1930s, than about events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yet some believe interest in the subject has waned in Hong Kong too, even though it can be discussed openly there, as other more pressing issues take centre stage.

"Most of the general public, they don't care anymore," said Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who studies the special administrative region's politics.

"They have new issues facing Hong Kong like income inequality, the housing issues, how to help the poor, how to create a social security old-age allowance for people. These are far more important issues for Hong Kong."

Activists in Hong Kong hope however that their continued highlighting of the crackdown will help to stem what some see as apathy among the populace.

"Most people are very unconcerned about political stuff in this society, but within a very short period of time, after talking to them, after sharing some factual information or my own opinions, at least you can see a part of them, they have this very subtle change of attitude," said Ashley Chau, a volunteer at the museum.

"Their heart could be opened. At least for young people, many of them are quite open minded. They're enlightened for this moment. They started to think or maybe search for the answers themselves."

dbardsley@thenational.ae