The Tiananmen vigils will be moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — At an exhibition hall in central Taipei, artists set up sculptures, churches held live-streamed prayer sessions and activists read poetry at a vigil near the president’s office while attendees dressed in black held small electric candles and 64 seconds long watched the silence.

On the 33rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Taiwan has become one of the last places in the Chinese-speaking world to commemorate the deaths of thousands at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party after the authorities cracked down on such demonstrations banned in Hong Kong.

“Taiwan has become very important. It has become the only place in the Chinese-speaking world where June 4th can be commemorated openly,” said Wu Renhua, a former Tiananmen Square protester, from a stage in Taipei’s Freedom Square. “History preservation is also a form of resistance,” he said.

For more than three decades, activists held an annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the incident, also known simply as June 4th. Under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing, the vigil – now a broader symbol of political expression in the city – was banned. Hong Kong authorities, which banned any gathering “to express views” in or near the park, last week warned citizens not to “test the limits”.

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In Taipei, this year’s events center on Hong Kong, which has become a cautionary tale for Taiwan as Beijing steps up threats to take over the self-governing democratic island it claims as its own.

Titled “Instead of dying in silence, live in resistance,” the exhibition includes art inspired by objects from the Hong Kong protests, such as Molotov cocktails and gas masks, photos from street protests in 2019, and films about the movement. The exhibit includes a restored version of the Pillar of Shame, a 26-foot sculpture depicting victims of the massacre. It was removed by Hong Kong authorities in December after being displayed at Hong Kong University for almost 25 years.

Groups host in Taipei and Tainan in southern Taiwan Performances of a play about an elderly couple in Beijing whose son was killed during the protests. The play ends with a performance of the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong”. A church in Tamsui, north of Taipei, whose parishioners are mostly from Hong Kong Live streaming of a prayer session to commemorate the deceased.

“It is a responsibility we cannot give up,” said Tseng Chien-yuan, president of the New School for Democracy, which organized this year’s Taipei vigil. “This is a war against memory. Our duty is to remind people of this incident.”

It is important to Tseng that Taiwan take the baton to commemorate June 4 because commemorating Tiananmen Square is a way to support democracy and protect human rights in the region. The art exhibit contains references to Taiwan’s authoritarian past during martial law and Myanmar’s military seizure of power.

“Over the past 33 years, the meaning of June 4 has expanded,” he said. “It means that the regime that has been cracking down on its people is getting stronger and we are having more trouble defending democracy.”

In Taiwan — where student protests erupted a year after the Tiananmen Square crackdown and marked a crucial turning point in Taiwan’s democratization — June 4 has traditionally not drawn as much public sympathy as in Hong Kong. Small events have been held for years, attracting little attention compared to the Hong Kong vigil.

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But as more Hong Kong activists and dissidents retreat to Taiwan amid arrests and mounting repression in the city, the anniversary has taken on new meaning.

“Taiwan and Hong Kong share a similar fate that binds us together because we face the same enemy,” said Kacey Wong, a Hong Kong dissident attending the June 4 art exhibition in Taipei. “It’s like a reserve base.”

Wong created a cardboard sculpture based on a Japanese manga series about monster-like giants that feed on humans. “I use it as a metaphor that mainland China comes to Hong Kong and eats people. Of course, it’s coming for Taiwan now after it eats up Hong Kong,” said Wong, who moved to Taiwan in July 2021.

Former student protesters say it depends on Taiwanese residents whether Taiwan truly takes on the mantle of commemorating Tiananmen, many of whom see themselves as separate from China or Hong Kong and their struggles for democracy.

When Tseng’s organization launched a fundraising campaign in March to restore the Pillar of Shame and permanently display it in Taipei, the internet was quick to react. Critics said the Tiananmen Square events had nothing to do with Taiwan, stressing that despite repeated claims from Beijing, Taiwan is not part of China.

“Some people say that Chinese affairs have nothing to do with the Taiwanese,” Tseng said.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement on Facebook on Saturday, “We believe such brute force cannot erase people’s memories. When democracy is threatened … there is a greater need to uphold democratic values.”

In Hong Kong, police patrolled Victoria Park, where the annual vigil was held, after locking down parts of it since late Friday. Still, residents found ways to remember, walking by the park in black T-shirts or showing a picture of a candle on their cellphones.

Some students appeared to have collected miniature 3D-printed figurines of the Goddess of Democracy – a symbol of the 1989 Beijing protests that was removed in December – and placed them on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

For Hong Kong students, marking Tiananmen Square may now require “Hide”.

A man dressed in black sat alone on a bench outside the park on Saturday night. Tseng revealed only his last name for security reasons and said he had been involved in the June 4 vigil since 1989.

“I can’t forget that,” he said. “I’m just sitting on a bench with nothing in my hands. If Hong Kong doesn’t have that freedom, there will be nothing left.”

Chiu Yan-loy, a former member of the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance that once organized the June 4 vigil, said the key is to continue to commemorate it in different ways. “Although we cannot remember publicly, no one can prevent us from privately commemorating the victims who sacrificed themselves for democracy,” he said.

On Saturday, about 2,000 protesters gathered in Taipei’s Freedom Square in the heat of an early summer evening. Activists dressed in black, wearing gas masks and hard hats – the unofficial uniform of the Hong Kong protests – erected a miniature version of the Pillar of Shame sculpture. From the crowd, participants shouted, “Glory be to Hong Kong.”

Liao Yiwu — a well-known Chinese dissident who was sentenced to four years in prison after publishing his poem “Massacre” in 1990 — attended the vigil. “What happened in Hong Kong was miserable,” said Liao, who was in Taiwan for a writing project. At the Taipei vigil, he recited a new poem, “The Second Massacre,” dedicated to Hong Kong protesters.

Jonni, 19, a Hong Kong native who moved to Taiwan last year and has given only his first name for security reasons, said he hopes Taiwan will pay more attention to China’s threats to its democracy.

“June 4th is a warning,” he said, watching the events from behind the crowd. “Don’t be too smug. The threat Taiwan faces is even greater.”

Lily Kuo in Taipei and Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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