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Tiananmen massacre museum opens in New York despite fear of Beijing backlash

Wille Okon 0 Jun 3

When Zhou Fengsuo was looking for a space in New York to display his art collection, he couldn’t believe his luck when he stumbled across 894 6th Avenue in the heart of midtown Manhattan. The numbers of the address – 8946 – were the same as the date he wanted to commemorate: 4 June 1989. It was “unbelievable”, the former student leader marvelled.

That Zhou’s collection, which opened to the public on Friday as part of the June 4th Memorial Museum, ended up in such an uncanny location is the result of a concerted, decades-long campaign by the Chinese Communist party (CCP) to eradicate any remembrance of the 1989 massacre around Tiananmen Square anywhere in the world.

Having virtually eliminated 4 June gatherings in mainland China and Hong Kong, the CCP’s efforts to suppress the memories of that event have increasingly been felt overseas.

In the early hours of 4 June 1989, troops from the People’s Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing, to disperse thousands of peaceful protesters who had gathered for weeks to demand political reforms. Hundreds of civilians were killed. The Chinese government has never fully acknowledged the massacre.

The opening of the June 4th Memorial Museum in New York was prompted by the closure of one in Hong Kong in 2021 after the imposition of the national security law effectively criminalised 4 June commemorations. But now people who try to light a candle much further from Beijing also encounter difficulties. When plans for the New York museum were announced last year, local Chinese community groups objected to them, accusing the organisers of being divisive.

The first venue the museum’s organisers approached turned them down without giving a specific reason. “We have to be very careful at negotiating [with venues] and be very explicit about our purpose,” Zhou said. That means “making sure that the other party is fully aware of the commitment needed”.

The museum plans to operate a visitor booking system. “We cannot open the door for anyone who wants to come in because we’re really worried they [the Chinese embassy] will send somebody,” said Wang Dan, another former student leader.

Shao Jiang, an exiled 1989 protester, has been helping to organise 4 June vigils in London since 2007. When the Observer tried to reach him by telephone in the days before this month’s event – a protest outside the Chinese embassy – the call was blocked.

Shao said this often happened in the run-up to 4 June. “If I order deliveries, they can’t contact me,” he said. “It’s quite normal, living in exile. Every year I face different difficulties.”

Activists have had to balance the desire to raise awareness of a fading memory with keeping out spies. In the past two years, Hongkongers have swelled the numbers at the London vigil. But attendees are often cautious, reluctant to remove their face masks or trust other people there.

“There are people who take photos at events that are critical of the CCP, including 4 June vigils,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s never clear who those people are, but likely they are associated with the CCP, and taking photos is a way of intimidating participants. That is also a big reason why overseas students refrain from going to those events.”

In many places, vigils are shrinking. Peng Xiaoming, a Berlin organiser, said: “The number of attendees is reducing because of the Chinese government’s powerful propaganda.”

This includes threats to students that they or their families will face repercussions in China. “Most of the people who attend are old friends and classmates from the past,” Peng said.

Taiwan is alone in the Sinosphere in still holding a significant 4 June event. Hundreds gather to light candles at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial.

In recent years, new Hongkongers arriving in Taiwan have boosted the size of the vigil, and drawn attention to the links between the CCP’s behaviour in 1989 and in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020.

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Beijing sees Taiwan as being part of its territory – and any mention of 4 June is therefore highly undesirable to the CCP. “Every year, there is something to limit our activities,” said Wonka, one of the vigil’s organisers, who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity.

The challenges include vandalism of the event’s signage and, increasingly, fear from potential collaborators. This year, Wonka invited a troupe of 20 musicians to perform at the vigil but several refused because of fear of retaliation from the CCP. In the end, only four or five of the musicians agreed to perform.

“It’s very normal,” said Wonka. “They are afraid of the China issue.”

The Chinese embassies in the UK, US and Germany did not respond to a request for comment.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said: “The Chinese government has already drawn a clear conclusion on the political disturbance in the late 1980s. The great achievements we made in the past 70 years since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China speak volumes about the right development path we have chosen with the endorsement by our people.

“The Chinese people will continue to advance along the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”