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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Commemorating Tiananmen Incident

Jun. 3, 2016

Memories of the Tiananmen Square incident seem to be fading with the passage of time, but a theater group in Hong Kong is trying to keep those memories alive.

Saturday marked the 27th anniversary of China's military crackdown on pro-democracy student protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Many civilians were killed.

The Chinese government forbids reporting on what happened, condemning it as a student riot. But that's not the case in Hong Kong, where freedom of speech is recognized under the "one country, 2 systems" policy.

Citizens groups there hold an annual candlelight vigil. And they're pressing the Chinese government to review its assessment of the incident and move forward with democratization.

Amid this backdrop, a Hong Kong theater group called Stage64 is putting on a play based on the testimony of students who were in Tiananmen Square.

The actors have performed the play every year, during the 2 months leading up to the June 4 anniversary.

The producer, 35-year-old Cheung Ka-wan, founded the troupe 7 years ago.

"The Tiananmen incident is not mentioned in schoolbooks," Cheung says. "I wanted people born after it to know the truth."

But the play's run may be nearing its end. Fewer junior high and high schools are requesting performances. Last year, 38 schools asked the troupe to come. This year, only 28 asked.

There's a new chill in the air. Last year, 5 people associated with a Hong Kong bookstore that sold titles critical of the Communist Party went missing. Then, a school that regularly had hosted the play in the past canceled upcoming performances. More and more schools are said to be avoiding politically sensitive issues.

Moreover, interest is waning among young people. This year, some student unions at universities and institutions have decided not to participate in the annual candlelight vigil.

"For Hong Kong peopIe, June 4 was just like other tragedies in the world," says Ernie Chow, president of the Student Union at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "We don’t think that many people should come out and mourn together."

An increasing number of students identify themselves as Hong Kongers, and they don't see the point of fighting for the democratization of China.

This situation worries the theater producer, Cheung. He has decided to create a new play to capture the hearts of Hong Kong's youth.

He is drawing on the "Umbrella Movement," a student-led protest in 2014. Demonstrators were demanding democratic elections in Hong Kong.

One of his play's characters is a woman from the mainland. The Umbrella Movement happens while she's in Hong Kong visiting relatives.

The woman tries to stop a boy in the family from joining the demonstrations. It turns out that she lost her daughter in the Tiananmen Square incident.

The scene opens with the woman reliving that day, 27 years ago. She is desperately trying to stop her idealistic daughter from standing up and demanding democracy in China.

"Don't go!" she pleads.

"You can't save the country with such a selfish attitude!" the daughter replies.

The scene draws parallels between the Tiananmen Square incident and the Hong Kong of today.

"My heart shivered at the thought of the victims who fought for democracy and freedom," says one audience member.

Student leaders of the Umbrella Movement were invited to the performance.

"I was touched by many things. I really wanted to cry. To me, commemorating the Tiananmen Square incident gives me the power to keep going today," Alex Chow, a former leader of The Hong Kong Federation of Students, told the audience.

Cheung reflected on the audience's response.

"Although the play may seem dated, I feel the Tiananmen Square incident gives the people of Hong Kong the chance to think about our place. That is why the story must be passed down," he said.

People are searching for new ways to pass down the memory of the Tiananmen Square incident to the next generation.


NHK World's Takuma Yoshioka joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio from Hong Kong.

Shibuya: We could see how the atmosphere in Hong Kong is changing from the case of the theater group. Have you seen any other signs of how things are changing over there?

Yoshioka: A museum in Hong Kong is an example of the increasing influence of Beijing. In a central area of Hong Kong there is a museum dedicated to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. It is the only museum of its kind in China. It opened 2 years ago. It exhibits objects that students had at the demonstration 27 years ago: shirts, a camera, a watch, a farewell note. They were provided from families of the victims. You can see a hole in a helmet where a bullet passed through and killed a student. But the museum will close this year.

"I saw so much about the sacrifices made by students. It's a shame the museum is going to close."
Museum visitor

"I think it is regrettable because there are a lot of documents here, if they are gone, then maybe the history will be forgotten."
Museum visitor

The owners committee of the building where the museum is located sued, claiming the museum violates the terms of the building’s management. A local newspaper reports the person who led the lawsuit has a relative close to Chinese Communist Party, so some people believe the lawsuit is politically motivated. One pro-democracy activist said “Hong Kong has been constricted by invisible hands."

Beppu: I saw in the story that more and more young people in Hong Kong are gaining a stronger identity as Hong Kong people. And so they feel that China's democratization has nothing to do with them. But regardless how they feel about themselves, the situation is that Hong Kong is still under the control of Chinese government, under the "one country, 2 systems" policy. So what do young people in Hong Kong think of this point?

Yoshioka: Young people in Hong Kong understand the reality. Hong Kong’s top leader, the chief executive, needs to be appointed by Chinese Communist Party. So you can say Hong Kong politics are indirectly under the control of Beijing. Under this circumstance, they demanded a democratic electoral system during the Umbrella Movement. But the 79-day sit-in could not change the Communist Party’s position at all. Some became desperate and more radical. They're now calling for independence from the mainland. They don’t like China, they don’t want to be recognized as Chinese. For them, fighting for the democratization of China seems like something that is no concern for them.

Beppu: Do you think it is inevitable that people will begin to forget the Tiananmen Square protests?

Yoshioka: That's concern that many in the pro-democracy movement have. They believe that if the memory of the incident fades in Hong Kong, then it will completely disappear in mainland China. I think efforts to pass on memories of that time to coming generations may take different forms, but they will continue in Hong Kong.

There is an opinion poll that asks if the Chinese government did the right thing in responding to the demonstrations. Fourteen percent of the respondents say the government was right, and 63% say it was wrong. That ratio hasn't changed much over the last 20 years in Hong Kong. But the feeling people used to have that Hong Kong could change mainland China is actually weakening.

Hong Kong has entered its political season. There will be a Legislative Council election in September, and a chief executive election next March. Young people do remain key players for the democratization of Hong Kong, and we will have to wait to see if they will also be the same for the future of the mainland.