London’s Tiananmen Vigil: Why 1989’s Tiananmen Massacre still matters

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Last night in London I attended Amnesty International’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil which commemorates the horrific events of June 4th 1989 and the thousands of people (namely students) who died, many of whom remain unidentified. Each year the London vigil draws together a combination of protesters and journalists who were in Tiananmen in 1989, mothers of Tiananmen victims and various political speakers who weave together the importance of the tragic events of 1989 with today’s political problems in wider China (in particular Hong Kong).

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It was a curious evening; sorrow, despair, tenacity (and occasionally awkward participation) were combined in a peculiar setting to deliver an important history and politics lesson. Outside the Chinese Embassy (which was not easily identifiable – the large Chinese national flag that normally hangs outside was pointedly absent) a group of about 10 people at 7pm began tying political banners to railings on the concrete crossing island that bridges the busy Portland Place road. Two security guards looked on warily from outside the Embassy’s doors. On the opposite side of the street, an almost silent Xinjiang/’East Turkestan’ secession demonstration was taking place, their banners announcing they had been there every evening since June 2002. The occasional car would drive by and honk its horn; it was hard to discern whether this was in support or denouncement of either demonstration. All this time I was sat awkwardly on the pavement about 5 metres away from the East Turkestan demonstrators. I was both wishing to not intrude on these evidently personal matters with groups of people who seemed to all know each other, and not wishing to look like I was waiting for something more.

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Whilst I was wondering whether the 7pm vigil was indeed going to take place as planned with its various speeches, two community police officers pulled up at about 7:20. I started to think perhaps I should be elsewhere! I slid my DSLR camera into my bag and pulled my jacket over my ‘Politics over People’ t-shirt, as if that would have made a difference anyway. The policemen soon left, merely asking the Tiananmen demonstrators to remove a banner they had tapped up on the plinth of a military statue.

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Just before 7:30, a microphone and speaker system was set-up and the vigil got underway. I had already taken some photos from across the street and found myself lurking towards the small crowd gathered on the pavement. A speech by the main organiser spoke about why we were gathered: to commemorate those who lost their lives and to remember what they had fought for, namely democracy and free speech. He then asked if we would turn towards the Chinese Embassy building and repeat various chants after him, like ‘democracy now’. The group, myself included, awkwardly shuffled round and did as requested. A solitary camera man darted between us recording various aspects. Then the Cantonese adopted version of ‘Do you hear the people sing’ (with re-written lyrics) was played over the speaker and we were encouraged to sing along. Bizarrely I know the lyrics to this song so I weirdly took a bit of pride in myself as I quietly sung along. The sing-along didn’t quite have the same effect as it had when over 100,000 sang it it in Hong Kong during the 2014 protests but the sentiment was nice.

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Next came a speech from a Hong Kong journalist who was in Tiananmen Square during the massacre. She started speaking in Cantonese and I started kicking myself for still not being a competent Cantonese speaker. Just as I was thinking of leaving, the man who was stood next to me leaned in and asked curiously why I was at the vigil and if I wanted him to explain anything. I politely accepted his request, explaining I was there because I was a politics student and the events in Tiananmen was a subject I was interested in and one I felt was still very important to the wider world. I told him of my Hong Kong interests and affiliation, and asked if he was originally from Hong Kong. He said he was a constitutional law professor from Hong Kong and happened to be in London on holiday. He then kindly translated the main parts of the Tiananmen journalist’s speech for me.

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Carter continued to translate for me for me and I took the opportunity to quietly ask him some tricky related questions. Meanwhile the organisers passed around stickers that commemorated the anniversary and also sheets with victims’ names on which I found particularly poignant. The mother of a Tiananmen victim spoke to her about her anguish and her wishes for a better (and more democratic) China and a better world. I was custodian of the name ‘Dong Lin’. I have looked online for information about Dong Lin but am yet to find anything. Whoever Dong Lin was, they and thousands of others gave their lives in the hope of instilling democracy in China and bettering the lives of its people.

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The underlying theme of the evening was how we must not forget that the events of Tiananmen have paved way for the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and other places. Without the preceding events of Tiananmen, the 2014 Hong Kong protests seem almost unthinkable. Tiananmen was certainly not the first protest of its kind but by showing the world in no uncertain terms what the ultimate penalty of demonstrating against a powerful government can be, those who participated in subsequent demonstrations, such as the Arab Spring of 2011, did so with immense courage, conviction and agreement of how important what they were fighting for was. Democracy was worth dying for.


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