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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Tiananmen 26 Years on

Jun. 4, 2015

Thursday marked the 26th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It’s a day neither China nor the international community can forget.

The military’s attack on protesters happened on June 4th, 1989. The Chinese government later said 319 people died. But critics say the real figure has not been revealed.

And they wonder how much has changed. A Chinese lawyer told a US Congressional panel that Beijing is still taking a hard line against political activists.

The square this Thursday was crowded with tourists. Armed police patrolled the area, on the lookout for any protest activities. An old man told NHK, “The government shouldn’t have suppressed the students or deployed the military. The leaders should have resolved the issue through dialogue.”

A special panel of the US Congress is looking into the human rights situation in China. Teng Biao says the situation is grim. He is a Chinese lawyer based in the US. “The Chinese government has not stopped its crackdown since Xi Jinping came to power,” he says.

Teng says more than 1,500 activists have been arrested or detained since Xi Jinping became president.

Lisa Peng is a university student and the daughter of an activist who has been detained in China for more than 10 years. She says human rights issues are ignored in favor of economic interests. She adds that the US is also responsible. She says that as a country which values democracy and human rights, the US should urge China to improve the situation.


NHK World’s Takuma Yoshioka visited Hong Kong, where many people staged a candlelight vigil in honor of the Chinese democracy movement.

Hong Kong is the only city in China that hosts such a large event. Pro-democracy students in Hong Kong were drawn to the movement when the crackdown erupted. They’ve been holding the memorial service every year at this time.

The young people who attend can also visit the June 4th Museum, run by citizens. They can see images that are banned on the Chinese mainland. A protester’s helmet bears a bullet hole. The museum staff say it was donated by the mother of a student who died in the Tiananmen crackdown.

The organizers of the vigil say their goal is to “promote democratization in every part of China from their base in Hong Kong.” They say about 180,000 people attended last year’s event.

However, some students have boycotted the ceremony this year. Student unions at 3 out of 8 of the city’s universities have decided to stay away.

The University of Hong Kong is one. Billy Fung is president of the Students’ Union. He says the two groups’ goals are different. “The organizers say they want a more democratic China and that democratizing Hong Kong is the way to achieve that,” says Fung. “But our goal is to democratize Hong Kong, period. So we are at odds on this issue.”

Behind this shift in attitude are the protests that started in September in Hong Kong against changes in its electoral system. At that time, students staged a sit-in on the main roads that lasted more than two months. The authorities responded by mobilizing a huge number of police officers. They eventually shut down the demonstrations.

Fung was on the scene. He says he sensed a serious threat to democracy in Hong Kong. He is now convinced the priority of activists should be to focus on building democracy in the city.

This year the students in Fung’s group hold a separate vigil. They made a video to show at the event. It shows students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Then it cuts to protest scenes in Hong Kong, with the words, “We live in a different age, but the time will come when we will awaken.”

“After our ‘umbrella revolution,’ I realized the real violence we had experienced was the government suppressing the democracy and freedom we had been demanding,” says Fung. “I felt that the first thing I had to do was figure out how to escape the crisis we were facing here in Hong Kong, our home, before trying to bring democracy to distant, remote China.”


Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu spoke with Takuma Yoshioka in Hong Kong.

Beppu: So Takuma, it’s interesting to see how last year’s protests have influenced democracy activists in HK. Is there a generation gap at play there?

Takuma: Yes, there is. Many members of the older generation were born in mainland China and came to Hong Kong to escape communism. They still see the mainland as their home. And they want to see it become a democracy. But younger people, like the students, were born and raised in Hong Kong. China looks like a foreign country to them. Students at the University of HK conducted a campus survey in January, asking about identity. Only 4 percent of students said they were Chinese. 75 percent said they were “Hong Kongese”. Last years’ students’ protests had a strong impact on their identity. And that’s affecting the debate over how to commemorate the Tiananmen crackdown.

Shibuya: Are the organizers of the Tiananmen vigil concerned that this generation gap might hurt their cause?

Takuma: They say they understand what the students feel. But they say there’s no changing the fact that Hong Kong is part of China. And Hong Kong is the only place in China where people can speak freely about what happened during the Tiananmen incident. They say if they stop calling for democracy in China, who else would do it? The group that organizes the Tiananmen memorial printed a booklet to try to win the students over to their way of thinking. There are over 20 questions and answers in it. Things like “Why are you holding candlelight vigils?” or “Why should we call for democracy on the mainland from Hong Kong?”If the rift grows, it may send the message to the Chinese government that the pro-democracy movement has splintered. This is the biggest concern for the organizers.

Beppu: Hong Kong’s government has proposed amending the electoral system, so people will be able to vote for their next chief executive, but Beijing could have plenty of influence over who’s on the ballot. Democracy campaigners want completely free elections. But what can they really do?

Takuma: They’ll try to block the proposal. They say Beijing will effectively be able to screen candidates for the election, and that’s still too much influence. China’s leaders, of course, say it’s a step in the direction of democracy. Hong Kong’s legislators will vote on the proposal later this month. Some student groups are planning to hold sit-ins outside the legislative council building at that time. Coming right after the Tiananmen commemoration, this will be a critical moment for Hong Kong people and democracy in their city.