An edited version was published on Independent Voices on 4 June 2015.
As night falls, our tour bus races on to Chang’an Avenue. The streetlights are slightly dimmed and tainted yellow. Barriers are everywhere, as if this country is perpetually on guard. Despite the neon lights and buzzing nightlife, it is a stomach churning feeling as I entered the city Beijing.
I have never been to the Chinese capital before, but these surroundings paint all too familiar a picture. This is the Beijing I recognise through documentaries and history books, the Tiananmen Square I travelled to many times through word of mouth and collective memory. This is the Beijing of 1989, where the People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately murdered students who protested for democracy during that feverish season.
I am in Beijing as part of an overseas Chinese delegation, invited by the Chinese government to exchange ideas over how best to support overseas Chinese. In truth, we all know there is a wider agenda at play, the narrative of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ or ‘the China Dream’ – a phrase repeated at any given opportunity during the week-long trip, as we are showcased China’s latest innovation and most stunning sceneries.
This is President Xi JinPing’s flagship policy goal. It prioritises economic development and national strength over all other concerns, including human rights.
China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate remains imprisoned, as rights activists are accused of overthrowing the state. The students of Tiananmen fall into the trashcan of history, and June 4th (known as ‘6.4’ in Chinese) propagated as an insignificant event in the shadow of the great achievements of the Communist Party.
Almost 2,000 kilometres away from Beijing, another battle for history and memory commences.
Over half a year since the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, the only place in China where Tiananmen vigils can legally take place, splits over how best to commemorate June 4th.
The younger generation of activists, some of whom refuse to be defined as Chinese, reject their predecessor’s alignment of Hong Kong’s democratic movement with China’s, and instead see June 4th as a caution of the Chinese government’s brutality, rather than a common struggle with their mainland counterparts.
But back in mainland China, the freedom to debate how or if we should at all remember June 4th is an extravagance. In recent days, messages started flowing in on my WeChat (main social media app in China), warning people that the internet police and Baidu (China’s largest search engine) are joining hands in censorship. These messages cautioned users not to share any satirical images to avoid sanctions against individual accounts or groups.
This is the Big Brother state, only cooler and richer than George Orwell could ever envisage. Worse, people actually believe in it.
Across China, people are content with the Communist Party’s legitimacy by performance. China’s economic growth lifted millions out of poverty and put pride back in the nation’s soul. However, as the tides of nationalism sweep across history, the memory of Tiananmen is slowly fading away, before eventually being wiped out of existence altogether.
That is why, 26 years on, it is all the more important that we learn the lesson of history, and to one day fulfil the dreams of those brave souls that sacrificed in Tiananmen Square – a freer country where people can fill their stomachs as well as speak their minds, with no cruel choice presented between the two.