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On The 31st Anniversary, Remembering The Tiananmen Square Massacre


Today is June 4, the day in 1989 when China sent its military against protesters. Chinese troops massacred many people as they cleared Tiananmen Square. Commemorating this massacre is forbidden in mainland China, but Hong Kong has held huge rallies every year to remember the victims until this year, when police banned that activity, although organizers say they're going ahead. NPR's Emily Feng is covering this story from Beijing. Hi there, Emily.


INSKEEP: Why is this anniversary so important in Hong Kong?

FENG: Well, that year 31 years ago, 1989, Hong Kong was still a British colony, and they saw these protests in Beijing as a parallel of their own struggle. At that point, the U.K. and China had already agreed that in the future, 1997, Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese rule. So the idea was if protesters in Beijing could create a democratic China, then democracy might finally arrive in Hong Kong as well, which we know didn't happen. But after the military crackdown on June 4, Hong Kong served another purpose. It became this important counterfactual of what China could've been with some limited civil rights.

Here's Zhou Fengsuo, an activist who now lives in New Jersey. But in 1989, he was one of the student leaders in Tiananmen.

ZHOU FENGSUO: I think Hong Kong showed the other aspect of China, the spirit of the people. And through this candlelight vigil, it represented love of freedom. It reminded people that China could be different.

FENG: But in some ways, 1989 also sealed Hong Kong's fate. That year, Beijing and Hong Kong were drafting the conditions under which China would govern Hong Kong. And Beijing, after they saw these Tiananmen protests, effectively took control of writing those conditions, and they included more stringent language on national security and subversion that you see them citing today. The lack of that candlelight vigil that Zhou Fengsuo was just talking about in Hong Kong feels particularly existential this year because Hong Kong's now coming under threat from Beijing's control.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And, of course, the very fact that they were able to hold this vigil at all, this memorial for Tiananmen Square, over the years suggests that there has been greater freedom in Hong Kong. What's happening now that the government, the central government, is cracking down?

FENG: That could disappear quickly. There is this proposed national security law which would effectively criminalize all forms of dissent in Hong Kong. That will likely be passed this month by Beijing. And then today, Hong Kong's own legislature passed a National Anthem Law, which criminalizes people who make fun of China's national anthem. That could land you three years in prison now or a hefty fine. Lawmakers tried to block that vote. One was dragged out of the chamber. The bill passed anyways.

INSKEEP: So now we have this anniversary, which has been marked for generations - for decades, anyway. And in Hong Kong, that commemoration is banned. What are people going to do?

FENG: Activists behind the rally said tonight they're still going to congregate. They're going to risk arrests and fines. Churches, which have more leeway when it comes to coronavirus-related social distancing guidelines, say that they're going to hold some smaller private events across Hong Kong. And people are encouraging other individuals to light candles in their home if they don't want to come to a public space. So events are still going to go forward.

Now, other countries are trying to put pressure on Beijing to not pass this national security law. The U.S. White House has said they'll revoke Hong Kong's trade privileges if the law is passed, but Beijing will likely bear that cost. And the United Kingdom, the former colonial power that ruled Hong Kong, actually said this week they'll open a path for citizenship for about 3 million Hong Kongers if the national security law is passed.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks for the update.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.