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Published: 04 June 2014

Tiananmen reflections

To mark the 25th anniversary of events in China's Tiananmen Square, Dr Malte Kaeding from the Department of Politics organised a public discussion forum with prominent Chinese activists, academics and University of Surrey students. Here are his thoughts on the evening, and on how the date will be marked by Chinese people.

On commemoration in China

"I think the likelihood is that if people commemorate 4 June in China, they will do so in private. It's very difficult to express their opinions.

"In Hong Kong there will be a massive rally, as every year. The interesting thing is that around five years ago we saw a spike in participation. Since then we see 100-150,000 and (according to organisers) even up to 200,000 people attending. The generation born after 1989 have no memory of the events, but they remember their parents commemorating them. You also have mainland tourists and mainland students in Hong Kong attending, sometimes wearing surgical masks because they are afraid of being recognised. In this regard, Hong Kong is extremely important in keeping the memory of the event and the democracy movement alive.

"In Macau there might only be small commemorations. During my  research on social movements in Macau, I talked to a professor who said that because mainland China’s influence is much stronger in the city and it is  such a tiny place, everyone will know if you attend events on sensitive issues.  When you talk to students who have taken part in social movements, they sometimes fear being disadvantaged on the local job market later.

"So you have one country (China) with three different ways of commemorating.  And if you look at Chinese-speaking Taiwan, the younger generation feel a clear separateness from China. They have a strong Taiwanese identity, and therefore don't really feel close to the protestors of the Tiananmen Square anymore. But I wonder if this is changing this year with the Sunflower student movement in Taiwan. During their occupation of the legislature the students were visited by two of the most prominent 1989 student leaders (Wang Dan 王丹 and Wu’er Kaixi 吾尔开希 ئۆركەش دۆلەت), who are both living in Taiwan, to show their support."

On awareness of Tiananmen in China

"A very good question that was asked at the roundtable event was whether it is possible to find out about Tiananmen in China.

"It is possible to find out, but it would very rarely  be taught, unless you have a teacher who is willing to share his own thoughts. I remember when I was in Hong Kong that many of the Chinese students first heard about it only when they arrived there. They knew something had happened, maybe some riots, because it's called 'the Tiananmen incident' and the Chinese propaganda towards the West does talk about counter-revolutionary activities, but they didn't really know what it was.

"They were so shocked when they found out. But since most Chinese people don't really know that anything actually happened, there's maybe no big incentive to climb over the internet censorship of the so-called ‘Great Firewall’ to find out. Yet, many young people avoid the internet censorship to log on Facebook or other blocked services, they may come across 4 June by accident and then try to find out more; therefore the internet is still very important for information on the event."

On Chinese travellers hearing about Tiananmen

"When Chinese people go abroad as workers, students or tourists, they come into contact with foreigners who tell them about Tiananmen, and they react differently.

"Some are very shocked, and start to question everything. They think: 'Well, if nobody told us about this, what else didn't they tell us about?'. I know from close friends that this realisation  is a very painful process. Questioning everything when you come from an authoritarian country and you don't have our freedom of speech is very tough for your self-identity.

"But also, there are people who just think it's not real. It's just western propaganda. If you are overseas and people constantly criticise your country, it can create a defence mechanism which is a normal human reaction."

On hosting a Tiananmen public discussion forum

"We had three excellent speakers. One of them was Dr  Shao Jiang 邵 江 . He is a political exile who was involved in the small-scale student movements in the 1980s, and then became one of the leading figures in 1989. He was put in prison for two years, then he fled abroad after several years under house arrest and in detention, and he's now in the UK researching social movement and elections. He gave us a good overview of the linkages to other student movements or social movements in the past, and new movements invoking international laws that China has signed up to pressure the government on rights in China. That is a new tactic.

"We had Dr Stephen Ng MBE 吳呂南 , who is well known in Islington's Chinese community. He is encouraging more Chinese-British people to get involved in political activities locally. He has written many poems on Tiananmen, some of which he movingly recited. Our students appreciated this very much - often when we study politics it can be focused too much on methodology and hypotheses, but we need also to look at emotions and moral standpoints. Dr Ng was not in China at the time, he was here. As he felt so helpless, he went on hunger strike, did marathons, and camped outside the Chinese embassy in London in support of the demonstrators in Beijing.

"The last speaker was Dr Dibyesh Anand from Westminster University. He linked this movement together with the treatment of minorities in China, in which he is an expert. He related this to the international development and status of China, and asked about  the West's responsibility. We know about the situation in China, but we still treat the country as a preferred business partner. What are the consequences of this?

"He also emphasised that we should not blame Chinese students studying abroad for not knowing about 4 June Tiananmen or for being afraid to talk about this, when even Western governments are afraid to offend the Chinese government by talking about human rights or meeting with the Dalai Lama. It is our responsibility to commemorate events like 4 June Tiananmen, but also to pressure our own government on these issues.  

"Our guests spoke for around 15 minutes each, then we had an hour of discussion with the audience. The questions from the students were amazing. Tough questions! Excellent engagement."

Dr Malte Kaeding is a Lecturer at the University of Surrey. As well as teaching international politics programmes, he also carries out research on social movements in the Chinese-speaking world.