When I was younger, the modern history of China, or the People’s Republic of China, including the 1989 democracy movement and Tiananmen Square massacre, was briefly taught in schools in Hong Kong. My curiosity about this taboo history of China was sparked, so I casually brought it up in front of my parents. When I asked them about it, little did I know it was a sensitive topic for my parents, as they experienced the ‘89 democracy movement in Hong Kong when they were teenagers.
They looked at me flustered, paused for a second and said, “Son, personal liberty, and democracy in China were basically nonexistent after June 4, 1989. Even though we are privileged enough to have limited personal freedom and liberty in Hong Kong, it is still dangerous to get involved in Chinese or Hong Kong politics. The less you know, the better.”
Since talking about these experiences could be difficult for my parents, I tried to avoid asking them about it any further. However, my curiosity about their experiences of the movement had only grown since then. Especially on anniversaries of the Tiananmen massacre, I sometimes could not help but make comments like, “I wonder what the ‘89 democracy movement experience was like.” My dad would respond by putting on his straight face and telling me, “Son, go study for your classes or do something more productive. What are you gonna gain from learning about the movement? No one can change China.”
Fast forward to high school, when I became more knowledgeable. I cared even more about China and Hong Kong politics. Seeing how passionate I was, my mom finally opened up to me about her experiences as a teenager.
“I still vividly remember seeing a million Hong Kong people filling up the streets protesting that night. It was pouring rain because a massive hurricane was striking Hong Kong, but that did not stop us from speaking up for what we believed in. It was probably the most powerful thing I have seen in my life.”
In 1989, thousands of Chinese college students and educators stood in front of the Beijing Capitol building in Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy and political reform in China. The ’89 democracy movement lasted for two months and soon spread throughout China to major cities such as Nanjing, Guangzhou and British Hong Kong with a turnout of millions of people. It even sparked protests in Taiwan eventually. Everyone, including my parents, was so hopeful for political reform and ultimately democracy in China. However, June 4, 1989 marked the downfall of social progression and democracy in China. The Chinese government used military forces such as automatic rifles and tanks to kill hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square to stop the movement from advancing. The shunning of social progression then led to Chinese diaspora and ultimately the silencing of anti-China voices, which is why it was a difficult experience for my parents and why they always remind me to be careful of my words and actions in regards to China.
As a Hong Kong citizen, this piece of history is extremely valuable and prevalent to me. Since Hong Kong and Macau are the most socially advanced places in China due to democratic influences under Western colonization, our freedom allows us to preserve and discuss the truth of taboo events in China like the Tiananmen massacre and the May Fourth Movement. Even though I never personally experienced the movement, the political impact of the tragedy of Tiananmen massacre is, however, readily visible in the democracy of Hong Kong and Macau today. It enrages me to see my people’s culture, personal liberties and freedom of speech slowly being limited by China as the Communist government attempts to Sinicize Hong Kong and Macau politically and culturally so that China can silence the truth and assert its dominance. Likewise, it is outrageous to see the way Taiwan is being suppressed internationally and Sinicized by China, despite the fact that Taiwan is a state that functions independently from China. With the privilege of having personal liberty and freedom living in the United States, I almost see it as an obligation for me to speak out against China’s oppression for myself, my people back in Hong Kong and other oppressed individuals. That said, I hope my fellow Chinese Americans, Hong Kong Americans, Macau Americans and Taiwanese Americans will be eager to learn more about the effects of the events in China’s modern history like the ’89 democracy movement and can become advocates of our parents’ narratives as well.
Rest in Peace to all the courageous college students, educators, and activists who were silenced and killed during the ’89 democracy movement. Your social impact shall never be forgotten.