As It Happens

Hong Kong's Tiananmen Square vigil was a beacon of light for this historian. Now, she senses a familiar fear 

Rowena Xiaoqing He still remembers the fear she felt as a student after the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989. Now, 32 years later, she sees that same fear in her students.

Annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park was banned for the 2nd year amid police crackdowns

Tens of thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong in 2014. The annual vigil for victims of the bloody June 4, 1989, crackdown on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protest movement was banned in 2021 for the second year in a row. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

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Rowena Xiaoqing He still remembers the fear she felt as a student after the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989. Now, 32 years later, she sees that same fear in her students. 

There were muted protests held in Hong Kong on Friday, after the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park commemorating the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown was banned for the second year in a row. 

Thousands usually gather in the park to remember the hundreds, possibly thousands, killed after Chinese troops opened fire on protesters in 1989. 

Authorities cited the risks of large crowds gathering during the coronavirus pandemic. But activists point to sweeping changes to how China controls the semi-autonomous region, including election changes, a national security law and the arrests of pro-democracy activists. 

Born in China, He was part of the student protests in the country's Guangdong Province in 1989, and is now an associate professor at the department of history in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After living in Canada and the U.S., she moved to Hong Kong after the last vigil was allowed in 2019.  

She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how she and her students commemorated this year's anniversary. 

The sea of candles that has happened in Victoria Park in Hong Kong since 1989, last year ... the police wouldn't allow it, they said, because of COVID. This year they really cracked down. Can you tell us what it was like today to be on the streets of Hong Kong trying to commemorate this event?

I first went with my students to get some white flowers because on our university campus there's a Goddess of Democracy [statue] that was a copy of the Goddess of Democracy that the students brought in Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

I think that if you remember from my interview with you for the 20th anniversary, I told you how sad I was that in 1989, we were not allowed even to light the candle for the dead. 

And that's why when I got freedom in the United States, in Canada, I make sure that every year I was able to do it. 

And of course, in Hong Kong with the younger generation, I wanted to do that with them too. It's very symbolic and [a] beautiful night that we were lighting candles last year. But this year we could no longer do that anymore. We perceive that as being risky if we do that. So we just put down the flowers. 

University students observe a minute of silence in front of the 'Pillar of Shame' statue at the University of Hong Kong on the 32nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

And how are police responding to these gestures — these very, very passive, gentle gestures of democracy movement?

Not many police when we did that. 

But then later when we were having the church service we saw on the internet there were lots of police out there. 

I have students who had been to other churches …  and then they were also texting us and said that, you know, the police are now outside and they were worried.

That's the situation that we are facing. That's the reality now. It's not just for tonight. It's more about in your daily life. 

The dramatic deterioration of intellectual freedom is just striking. So I think about it because as someone who has lived in China for so many years, has lived through the post-Tiananmen period myself, and I was wondering, where's the fear coming from all of a sudden? 

People around me are so scared, and I think it's the same old thing. Like, you don't know where that red line is, right?

It pains me to see that history is just repeating itself again in Hong Kong in the younger generation- Rowena Xiaoqing He

What did police do as you were trying to come home tonight?

I was leaving the church on campus, so when I was ready to go out, we saw on the internet that there were a lot of police outside of campus. So then my students immediately said, "Let's [not] go out." And then I said, "I don't have anything to worry about. If they stop me, I can just tell them I just got out of the church." 

But I can see how traumatized they have been. And I don't think that the fear was imagined. Just like how I felt in 1989. The younger generation just reminded me so much of my time right after Tiananmen, and I was exactly their age at that time. It pains me to see that history is just repeating itself again in Hong Kong in the younger generation.

Rowena Xiaoqing He is now a history scholar on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. (The Chinese University of Hong King)

So you were able to finally get past police, but there were arrests and police did prevent most of what happened today, including any kind of of commemoration in Victoria Park, right?

That's what we read in the news. It's a very difficult decision, because I really wanted to go to Victoria Park because our identity is always connected with the space, in social movements especially.

I also felt that the Hong Kong people have been holding the candles for me and for many of us who did not have the luxury inside China to do that. And they remember for us, and it's my turn now to go over and to support. But as it turned out, the Victoria Park was closed in the afternoon.

Hong Kong Victoria Park was empty this year. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

These young people, the students you are with, they remind you of yourself in the days of the Tiananmen Square protests and the Tiananmen massacre. Is that right?

The students in Hong Kong now, they actually reminded me of my time in the post-Tiananmen period. 

When they asked me if we should just have a private discussion session on campus or in my home, my immediate reaction was no.

I said that because if we have a closed-door gathering, it would remind me too much of my time in the 1990s when I had to close all the doors and windows and to light candles with my best friend. 

I do not want to do that, because in Hong Kong, there are still open commemoration activities in the church. 

A man stands alone to block a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/Associated Press)

What is it that can give those young people the hope that you felt in 1989?

I know that many of them were talking about an endgame. And I told them there's never an endgame. We might lose many battles, but we are going to win the war. History's on our side. 

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from the Associated Press. Interview with Rowena Xiaoqing He produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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