Hong Kong as China’s Institutional Memory

The World
How It Works
June 4 2014 11:14 AM

One Country, Two Memories

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Thousands of people crowd Victoria Park to mark the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square protests with a candlelight vigil on June 4, 2014, in Hong Kong.

Photo by Jessica Hromas/Getty Images

Security was predictably tight in Beijing today for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and there don’t see to have been any serious attempts to commemorate the event in mainland China. Foreign reporters were hassled away from the square, university students have been hustled out of town on a field trip, a prominent Chinese-Australian artist was arrested after making critical comments in the foreign media and making a diorama of the square covered in ground meat, and Google service was disrupted.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The government’s only statement on the anniversary was a vague message from the foreign ministry laden with favorite party catchphrases like “reform and opening up” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

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Former NPR correspondent Louisa Lim’s new book The People’s Republic of Amnesia argues that the government has been uncannily effective at erasing the memory of 1989, particularly among those who weren’t born or were children when the event took place.

In the course of her research, she showed “100 students at four top universities in Beijing the iconic photo of a lone Beijinger facing down a line of tanks rolling towards the square, a photo that has been memorialised in the West as “tank man.” Only 15 could correctly identify it. Nineteen students thought it was a photo of a “military parade.”

Most Chinese media outlets seems to be ignoring the event entirely. But the Global Times, a pro-government paper whose English edition is aimed at an international audience, has addressed it in an editorial, arguing that the government has only “shielded relevant information in a bid to wield a positive influence on the smooth development of reform and opening-up.” Contrary to the “mendacious impression” given by anti-Chinese forces in the West, “Chinese society has never forgotten the incident 25 years ago but not talking about it indicates the attitude of society.”

Some of those mendacious forces are clearly just across Victoria Harbor. In contrast to the tense silence on the mainland, the commemoration of Tiananmen was very much in evidence in Hong Kong, where as many as 150,000 people attended a candlelight vigil today. Hong Kong hosts a permanent museum dedicated to the event, and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has had some of the best coverage of the anniversary including a beautifully put-together multimedia feature based on firsthand accounts of the crackdown. 

Some of those in attendance at today’s vigil were some of the millions of mainlanders who visit Hong Kong each year. Many had traveled to Hong Kong specifically so they could commemorate the event. Others, like one students who spoke with Bloomberg, just happened upon it.

 “We just happened to be traveling here and saw the news about this event, so we decided to check out what the fuss was all about,” said Andy Duan, 25, a student from Beijing. “I honestly don’t know a lot about Tiananmen, except for the little that the older people say in passing.”

Hong Kong is currently undergoing the dual and seemingly contradictory processes of becoming more closely integrated with mainland China while theoretically transitioning toward having a fully elected democratic government.

But China and Hong Kong together aren’t just “one country, two systems”—another favorite slogan—they seem to be one country with two memories, and two very different understandings of recent history.  

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