Written by Evan Fowler.
Earlier this year, in a room in a UK university, I was speaking to a small gathering of students. I was speaking not as a researcher, but as man of mixed heritage, part-English and part-Chinese. I was speaking on my home — Hong Kong.
As I began to speak on a subject that was integral to my identity, four students together stood up and walked out of the room. The students, I was later told, were from the Mainland. The subject that had offended them was the Tiananmen Massacre.
On morning of June 4th, 1989 I was sat around a small television screen at the home of my grandmother (婆婆). I was nine years old. All of my family in Hong Kong were there, in front of that small screen. As we watched the events play out on the streets of Beijing, I felt her grip tighten. At several points she embraced and kissed me, and I felt her tears on my cheek.
My family, as Eurasians, shared many of the trappings of expatriate life. But we were also different. My family had come to Hong Kong several generations back. We were not people in transit. Hong Kong, and China, represented more than an opportunity — it was more than just our present; it was also our past.
No one in my family had been to Beijing. We knew no one there. As Cantonese speakers, we did not speak Mandarin. And yet everyone in my family cried. I cried as a child. I sensed the distress, the pain and the hurt. There were other emotions I could not understand and so could not feel: of shock, grief, fear, panic, anger and rage. However, I knew what I was feeling and what I was witnessing happen on screen was profoundly wrong. The shaky clips and noise, and the voices, the shouting and the crying, all carried with them a resonance. That day I felt depth of my Chinese roots. June 4th taught me, before I ever knew of or cared for politics, that a nation and a people are not defined by a government, let alone by one party.
The Tiananmen massacre was a watershed that profoundly changed all our lives.
After that day, the shadow of July 1st, 1997, the day Britain would hand Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic of China, hung over my family like a heavy, terrifying dark cloud of worry tinged with fear. We knew it would break, but what lay beyond was unclear. It was because of Tiananmen that my immediate family, including my grandmother, decided to emigrate to the United States. Only my parents and I, and my young sister, stayed, our trust not with the incoming regime but in a black leather passport that stated we were British Nationals.
Only in the darkness of night can we see the stars that glitter across our sky. From the darkness of June 4th, I would discover those stars, in Taiwan and across the Chinese diaspora, that reached out and touched my tears in Hong Kong. Together a new China formed in my mind and in my heart united not language nor national borders, but by a common sense of togetherness. Taiwan was no longer defined by its Nationalist past but by instead by its Chinese present.
We must remember June 4th not as a moment of Chinese shame, but for the protestors at Tiananmen and across the Chinese Mainland that gave all Chinese the hope that we could be one people — that for the briefest of moments we saw the possibility of a China dream. The more the People’s Republic seeks to forget, the more important it becomes for all those who are Chinese to remember. The China model need not be repressive nor authoritarian, nor our identity imposed by political forces.
In keeping the flame of remembrance alive, we keep alive the idea that our common civilisation’s history can be the basis of a common Chinese identity. Whether we are Hong Kongers or Taiwanese, the hopes and pain we share in the memory of June 4th define us as Chinese in heart and spirit.
In time people age and generations pass. Today as all Chinese people are confronted by the behemoth of the Chinese Communist Party’s new China Dream, we are all demanded to fall to our knees. For this dream demands total submission. It demands the deconstruction of our identity and memories as Chinese people, and for our subsequent reconstruction along party lines. China, we are told, exists only within the restrictive parameters of Xi Jinping Thought.
In the face of this monster a younger generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan have begun to turn away from our shared memory and identity forged by June 4th. Seeking the strength to stand firmly in their own identity, many have turned inwards towards the immediate reassurances of their immediate local identities. Today they stand tall to declare Taiwan and Hong Kong are not China.
However, for me, and for many of the generation whose memories of June 4th, 1989 remain etched in our minds, the memory of that Chinese spirit remains for us a far deeper well of inspiration and understanding from which to draw.
Remembrance is not an act of shame, nor an act made with hatred. Only those driven by shame learn to hate, which is why, without acknowledgement and recognition of what was done in their name the corridors of power in Beijing will continue to ring hollow.
As the four students left the room, I was asked by another student how I felt. I replied that I felt sad. I felt sad that there are people who feel their identity as Chinese is threatened by the truth. I said that for me, my Chinese identity sees not shame but hope in what was so nearly achieved in 1989. After the talk two groups of research students approached my table as I was packing up to leave. Both groups offered to walk with me to the train station. They were from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Evan Fowler 方禮倫 is a Hong Kong writer, co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press, and the author of the report ‘Hong Kong: The Steady Erosion of Freedom’. He was previously an advisor to the establishment of House News 主場新聞 (2012) and Stand News 立場新聞 (2015), and between 2007 and 2015 ran the Hong Kong Identity Project.