Taiwan’s Lai says Tiananmen ‘will not disappear in torrent of history’

Tuesday marks 35 years since Chinese soldiers stormed the square and opening fire on peaceful protesters.

Protesters gather in London to remember Tiananmen. They have flags and placards. One is waving a Tibetan flag.
Protesters in London's Parliament Square gathered to remember the 1989 crackdown [Henry Nicholls/AFP]

Taiwan President William Lai Ching-te has promised Beijing’s brutal 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square will not be forgotten, as Hong Kong deployed hundreds of police to keep an eye out for potential commemorative activities.

Tuesday marks 35 years since Chinese soldiers stormed the square where students and workers had set up camp for weeks, opening fire and killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people. An official death toll has never been released.

“The memory of June 4th will not disappear in the torrent of history,” Lai wrote in a statement on Facebook, adding that Taiwan, a democratic island claimed by Beijing, would “work hard to make this historical memory last forever”.

The Tiananmen Square protesters wanted political reform and were frustrated at the then-government’s handling of the economy and the growth of corruption. Party leaders dismissed them as “counter-revolutionaries” and after the crackdown, many of the protesters fled overseas.

In the years since, discussion of Tiananmen has become taboo on the mainland.

Hong Kong police searching performance artist Sanmu Chen
Hong Kong police search performance artist Sanmu Chen after he gestured to trace the Chinese characters of 8964 in reference to Tiananmen Square [Yan Zhao/AFP]

Until 2020, Hong Kong was the only Chinese territory that held a memorial for the crackdown, with thousands turning out for its annual vigil in Victoria Park.

That event is now banned and its organisers jailed.

In recent days, eight people have been arrested for alleged sedition over social media posts related to Tiananmen in the first arrests under Hong Kong’s domestic national security law, which exists in addition to a sweeping security law imposed by China in 2020.

The South China Morning Post reported that hundreds of police had been deployed to keep watch in “sensitive” locations, while a few occupied the vigil site in Victoria Park.

On Monday night, performance artist Sanmu Chen was taken away by police after drawing the Chinese characters for the numbers 8964, representing the date of the crackdown, in the air. Chen’s lawyer told the AFP news agency that the artist was later released.

‘The truth must not be erased’

Meanwhile, Chinese and Hong Kong exiles joined activists in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere to remember the events of June 1989.

More than 2,000 people attended a vigil in Toronto, including the city’s mayor. A vigil was also organised on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, while a series of events including public discussions, an exhibition and play have taken place in London.

Campaign group Hong Kong Watch stressed it was important that June 4 be remembered.

“Those who live in freedom must uphold our responsibility to make sure that 4 June 1989 is never forgotten,” said the group’s founder and chief executive, Benedict Rogers. “We must ensure that candles are lit and memories rekindled in every corner of the world in honour of the courage and sacrifice of those who protested in 1989. The truth must not be erased.”

Taiwan’s Lai, who took his oath of office last month after winning January’s presidential election, said what happened in Tiananmen was a reminder that “democracy and freedom are hard-won”.

Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to take control of Taiwan and staged two days of war games around the island in the days after Lai’s inauguration.

In his post, Lai lauded Taiwan’s transition from an authoritarian military regime to a thriving democracy and wrote that “any respectable country” allowed its people to speak out.

“Any political power should bravely face the voices of the people, especially the young generation, because social change often relies on diverse opinions,” he said.

“We must use democracy to build consensus, respond to autocracy with freedom, face authoritarian expansion with courage, and face challenges with unity,” he said.

China accuses Lai of being a “separatist”. Like his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, he argues the people of Taiwan should decide their future.

Taiwan will hold its own commemoration of Tiananmen on Tuesday evening.

Hong Kong Democracy Council Executive Director Anna Kwok holds a candle as she participates during a candlelight vigil
Hong Kong Democracy Council executive director Anna Kwok holds a candle during a candlelight vigil in Washington, DC [Alex Wong/Getty Images via AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera