Silence and heavy security in China and Hong Kong on 35th anniversary of Tiananmen crackdown


Checkpoints and rows of police vehicles lined a major road leading to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Tuesday as China heightened security on the 35th anniversary of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests. China has long quashed any memory of the killings when the Chinese government ordered in the army to end the months-long protests and uphold Communist rule. An estimated 180,000 troops and armed police rolled in with tanks and armoured vehicles and fired into crowds as they pushed toward Tiananmen Square.

The death toll remains unknown to this day. Hundreds, if not thousands are believed to have been killed in an operation that started the night before and ended on the morning of June 4, 1989. The crackdown became a turning point in modern Chinese history, ending a crisis in favour of Communist Party hardliners who advocated for control instead of political reforms. The economy boomed in the ensuing decades, turning a once impoverished country into the world’s second-largest economy, but societal controls have been tightened since party leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Across China, the event remains a sensitive and taboo subject that is heavily censored, and any mention or reference on social media is erased. It was just another day in the Chinese capital, with hundreds of tourists lining the streets leading to gates to enter Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace that sits across from the north side of the square. Those who lost family members in the crackdown are generally prevented from gathering or grieving in public.


Asked by a foreign journalist for comment on the 35th anniversary during a daily foreign ministry briefing on Monday, spokesperson Mao Ning shrugged off the event. “The Chinese government has long since come to a clear conclusion on the political disturbance that took place in the late 1980s,” she said, without elaborating. Tiananmen Mothers, a group formed by families of the victims, made an online appeal to the Chinese government to publish the names and numbers of those who died, grant compensation to the victims and their relatives and pursue the legal responsibility of those responsible.

“The June 4 tragedy is a historical tragedy that the Chinese government must face and explain to its people, and some people in the Government at that time should be held legally responsible for the indiscriminate killing of innocents,” the group said in a letter signed by 114 family members and published on its website, which is blocked in China. Tiananmen memorials have also been scrubbed out in Hong Kong – for years the only place in China where they could take place. On Tuesday, a carnival organized by pro-Beijing groups was held in a park that for decades was the site of a huge candlelight vigil marking the anniversary.

Police used a new national security law to arrest eight people over the past week for social media posts commemorating the crackdown, including Chow Hang-tung, a former organizer of the vigil. Several pro-democracy activists told The Associated Press that police had inquired about their plans for Tuesday. Officers were out in force in Causeway Bay, a bustling shopping district close to the park where the vigil was held. Police briefly detained a performance artist the previous evening in the same neighbourhood.

Some Hong Kong residents remembered the event privately, running 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) on Monday – a reference to the June 4 date – and sharing Tiananmen-related content on social media. The British consulate posted a photo on the social media platform X showing a smartphone’s flashlight turned on with “VIIV,” the Roman numerals for 6/4, printed on it. An independent bookstore, which displayed “35/5” on its window – a roundabout reference to the date of the crackdown as May 35th – wrote on Instagram that police officers were stationed outside the shop for an hour on Sunday, during which they recorded the identity details of customers.

Hong Kong’s leader John Lee did not answer directly when asked Tuesday whether residents could still publicly mourn the crackdown. He urged residents not to let down their guard against any attempts to cause trouble. “The threat to national security is real,” Lee said at a weekly briefing. “Such activities can happen all of a sudden and different people may use different excuses to hide their intention.” Commemorative events have grown overseas in response to the silencing of voices in Hong Kong. Vigils were planned in Washington. D.C., London, Brisbane and Taipei among other cities this year, as well as a growing number of talks, rallies, exhibitions and plays.