On a steamy summer’s night several hundred people gathered at the foot of Taipei’s grand Chiang Kai-shek memorial for one of dozens of vigils being held around the world to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
A man walked on to the stage, with the eyes of the crowd upon him, and voiced a timid welcome: “Hello everyone.” Then he began to scream.
Roaring at the top of his voice in Mandarin, he spoke about how pro-democracy demonstrators were beaten and killed in Beijing as if it were happening in front of his eyes. His words echoed around Liberty Square. Later, the crowd would sing and light candles of remembrance of the victims of the massacre, and wave flags for Hong Kong independence.
On 4 June 1989 Chinese authorities brutally crushed a student-led protest in Tiananmen Square, sending in troops with tanks and guns. Chinese authorities claimed that 200 people died, but it is believed the true figure could be in the thousands.
Commemorating the massacre has never been allowed in China and the topic is strictly censored. Today, it is all but outlawed in Hong Kong, which for 30 years had been the traditional keeper of the vigil. After a brutal crackdown on the 2019 protests, Hong Kong authorities turned their sights to the pro-democracy movement with which the vigil is closely tied. Thousands of protesters and residents fled the city, with at least a few hundred coming to Taiwan.
Some people now hope this island, which shares linguistic and cultural traditions with Hong Kong and China, can take on the primary role of annual remembrance. But it’s complicated.
Taiwan is under threat of invasion from Communist party-ruled China, which considers it to be a wayward province bound for inevitable “reunification”, peaceful or otherwise. The treatment of Hong Kong in recent years has only driven the Taiwanese further from Beijing’s entreaties. For some, this has fostered solidarity with Hong Kong. For others, however, it has confirmed that an event like Tiananmen is not their cause.
Wang Juntao, chair of the vigil organiser, the New School for Democracy, tells the crowd he knows many people see the anniversary as a “Chinese domestic affair”.
“But if China doesn’t become a democratic country, it’s impossible for Taiwan to be independent.”
Standing up for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photograph: Jeff Widener/Associated Press
The government of Taiwan is treading a narrow path between supporting the protesters it has backed as “freedom fighters”, and the need to maintain a tenuous peace with China without upsetting the status quo.
“There is a conflict even in [Taiwan’s] pro-democracy camp,” says Liao Bin-jou, who works with the Taiwanese Civil Aid to HKers, an NGO, and says many of the activists are Taiwanese nationalists first. “But we share universal values.”
Yu-Wen has brought her seven-year-old daughter, Shawny, to the vigil, hoping to pass on the knowledge of what happened, as her own mother did for her.
“I’m worried that Taiwan may become like Hong Kong. I want her to know that we can protest and we can speak up,” she says.
The mixed feelings about the vigil extend to Hong Kongers, and many here do not want to mark the day.
The vigil on Saturday vigil was bigger than in previous years but was still dominated by Hong Kongers, NGO representatives and the media. A small group of Hong Kongers met early at the nearby Chi-nan Presbyterian church, a known haven for Hong Kong protesters.
Former Hong Kong protest leader Wong Yik Mo, who is also Taiwanese and fled here permanently in 2020, hopes that the vigil grows.
“If people don’t care about 4 June today, I can imagine in 10, 20 years, when people talk about Hong Kong’s protests, people saying: ‘who fucking cares? You are the older generation, we have our world and you don’t represent us’. All the same things could be said to our protest and our sacrifice, and I feel sad about that.”
Wong says he understands why Taiwanese may not feel drawn to attend Tiananmen vigils, but believes Hong Kongers in Taiwan should go.
“My friends in Hong Kong were telling me to hold candles for them because they can’t do it … If [Hong Kongers] have time they should come. Otherwise, why are you leaving? If you don’t care about 4 June then stay in Hong Kong. You’re safe.”
Activists say that, paradoxically, Beijing is helping people to remember as its hostility towards democracy inspires global pushback.
“The more Beijing tries to erase history, the brighter and wider the memory will burn – in Hong Kong and beyond,” says Samuel Chu, a US-based Hong Kong activist.
“10 years ago, Tiananmen was fading history for many, but now the desire to snuff out the last bit of remembrance has made history into news again.”
Additional reporting Chi Hui Lin