A New Square
Every year on the evening of June fourth, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park fills with tens of thousands of people. They crowd onto the green soccer pitches with candles raised high to honor the lives lost in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student demonstrations and to demand democracy for China.
One intriguing aspect of the vigil, the largest protest on Chinese soil to commemorate an incident the government has tried its hardest to censor from Chinese memory, is the deliberate recreation of Tiananmen Square, a symbol of Beijing, within Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. Hong Kong University professor David Clarke writes that on June 4, replicas of the Goddess of Democracy (created for the 1989 demonstrations) and the Monument to the People’s Heroes (seated at the center of Tiananmen Square) within Victoria Park even serve to allow a “specific kind of imagined community”––Tiananmen itself–– “to come into being” (Clarke, qtd. in Ingham 75).
This particular photo (see above), taken from a New York Times article documenting the 2012 June Fourth Vigil, is representative of a number of photos that capture the Victoria Park vigil-goers against an enormous backdrop of a crowded Tiananmen Square in the day or days just before the Massacre (the exact date of the photo is unknown, but judging from the appearance of the goddess in the midst of the crowds, the photo must have been taken between May 30 and June 3, 1989). In many respects, there is a melding together of two separate images: the one of the Tiananmen backdrop and the one of Hong Kong protestors standing in front of the Tiananmen backdrop. The perspective lines of the Victoria Park scene captured at such an angle suggest the merging of the Victoria Park crowd and the Tiananmen crowd into one, and the presence of Chairman Mao and the Goddess of Democracy at the center point of both the Tiananmen image and the Victoria Park image (as if they were overlooking the entirety of both scenes) also links the two public spaces together.
The question many might ask, however, is why would Hong Kongers want to reenact such a politically repressed, censored space within a much freer, open one? While Tiananmen Square has been known for its clampdown on Chinese political freedom, Victoria Park has made its name not only as the center of the annual Tiananmen demonstrations, but also as an effective space for protest on other issues. In July 2003, for example, Hong Kongers successfully marched to oppose the adoption of “Article 23,” an ordinance that strongly favored the central Beijing government at the expense of the Hong Kong people’s political expression (Ingham 74). Tiananmen Square, on the other hand, remains empty on June fourth, but for a regular coming and going of tourists. The police who frequent the square are also quick to crack down on any sort of even remotely suspicious activity.
To employ this particular Tiananmen photo as a backdrop, however, is not just to reenact Tiananmen Square itself, but to raise from the past the era of the 1976 public-mourning-turned-demonstrations at the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the 1978 Democracy Wall, the 1986 Shanghai pro-democracy student protests, the 1987 Beijing student rallies––just to uncover the tip of the political activity iceberg––all leading up the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. Though each of these represent imperfect victories––the government eventually framed the Zhou Enlai demonstrations in a pro-CCP light; dissident Democracy Wall writers, previously tolerated for messages that coincided with the government’s modernization goals, were arrested as their words scraped the boundaries of the government’s controlled narrative ––they do represent an unprecedented surge of political expression against the government since the founding of the People’s Republic (Spence 723-25, 738-46).
Read in this context, both the image of Tiananmen Square and the image of Hong Kong protesters in front of the image of Tiananmen Square take on new symbolic meaning. Chairman Mao and the Goddess of Democracy starkly juxtaposed at the center suggests a jostle for power––it is as if the photo implies a state of transition (perhaps ephemeral, but transition nonetheless) for Chinese political freedom. The chairman and the goddess as the center of both image and image within an image also conveys a sense of continuity between the 1989 demonstrations and the recent year vigils portrayed by the Victoria Park photo. The interpretation, perhaps, that the hope of a more politically free China, the China of Democracy Walls and peaceful protests*, exists; the battle just still has to be fought.
Another show of the Hong Kong vigil-goers’ solidarity with the Chinese people in the mainland is their posture: arms raised and candles in hand, they embody (whether consciously or not) the Goddess of Democracy raising her torch. Though the stately Goddess––mulled by a military tank after a five-day lifespan––could not stand forever, her image has been reproduced by the tens of thousands of vigil participants. The people’s postures in Victoria Park in fact seem a response to the cry of student speakers who unveiled the statue in Tiananmen Square 23 years earlier, after acknowledging the physical (but not symbolic) vulnerability of the plaster goddess. “We have still another hope,” they cried, “Chinese people arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts!” (qtd. in Deneen xv). As Berkeley art history professor Tsao Hsingyuan writes, “The statue was intended from the beginning to be ephemeral, and yet to endure as an image of the desire of the great mass of Chinese people for the ideals it symbolized: liberty and democracy” (6). The gathering together and postures of the Hong Kong people represent a beautiful act that strives to keep the ideals of the 1989 student demonstrations alive.
In his book China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua nostalgically captures the fleeting moth’s wing summer of 1989 Beijing. He writes:
A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order. As you walked down the street you felt a warm, friendly atmosphere all around you. You could take the subway or a bus for free, and everyone was smiling at one another, barriers down. We no longer witnessed arguments in the street. Hard-nosed street vendors were now handing out free refreshments to the protestors. Retirees would withdraw cash from their meager bank savings and make donations to the hunger strikers in the square. Even pickpockets issued a declaration in the name of the Thieves’ Association: as a show of support for the students, they were calling a moratorium on all forms of theft. Beijing then was a city where, you could say, “all men are brothers.” (7)
By recreating the June 1989 Tiananmen Square, demonstrators in Victoria Park recreate a China that is still hope-filled. Though Yu Hua writes that this city-of-brotherly-love Beijing is “a Beijing we are unlikely to see again,” the demonstrators of Hong Kong preserve a glimpse into that city (7). In light of growing apprehension about the political emptiness of the square since the 1989 crackdown (Human Rights in China has even launched a worldwide internet petition in support of the Tiananmen Mothers called “Fill the Square”), demonstrations in Hong Kong, as portrayed by this photo, seem to take a step towards reviving the space as a vibrant political symbol of the Chinese people.
Though the irony of recreating the Beijing square within Victoria Park was especially prevalent this year as Hong Kongers debated over the “love country” portion of the vigil’s slogan, Hong Kongers once again gathered in Victoria Park despite the controversy and the pouring rain. This year, their million-colored umbrellas that shielded them from the deluge also set them apart from the 1989 crowd gathered under clear Beijing skies; yet the show of solidarity proved no less powerful. One participant, moved by the scene, tweeted, “With the heavy rain, I was even more touched seeing people old and young, holding on to their umbrellas, trying to keep their candles burning, while their clothes got totally soaked” (Kwok-ping, qtd. by Tatlow).
* Here I want to be careful not to portray China as one big repressive machine where the people have no political agency. The political situation is actually much more nuanced. While much of the social media and sensitive information is blocked, people often find subtle, unconventional ways to spread information. One example is sharing documents covertly over the internet or using sarcasm and irony to hide (or make more pointed) real meaning. There have also been successful protests including ones on environmental issues. See http://www.warriorsofqiugang.com/ for an example. It is unfair to generalize the Chinese people as without any agency; however it is true that the government prohibits open forums (public discussion, commemorations, media) and open access to uncensored, sensitive information. It is these things, along with greater transparency, that are worth fighting for.
Deneen, Patrick. Democratic Faith. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. eBook.
Ingham, Michael. Hong Kong: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. eBook.
Spence, Jonathan D. The Search For Modern China. 1st. paperback. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. 620-666, 723-25, 738-46. Print.
Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. "In Hong Kong, a Rain-Soaked Celebration of Democracy." International Herald Tribune Rendezvous. International Herald Tribune, 05 Jun 2013. Web. 17 Jun. 2013. <http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/in-hong-kong-a-rain- soaked-celebration-of-democracy/>.
Tsao, Hsingyuan. "A Goddess Old in Form, New in Spirit."Los Angeles Times 18 June 1989, 1, 6. Print.
Yu, Hua. China in Ten Words. New York City: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012. 7. Print.