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Taiwan holds vigil for China's 1989 Tiananmen crackdown


June 4, 2024 10:10 PM

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Hundreds gathered in Taiwan on Tuesday night to commemorate the 35th anniversary of China's deadly crackdown at Tiananmen Square, after the island's President Lai Ching-te vowed that the memory of those killed would not disappear.

Chinese troops and tanks forcibly dispersed peaceful protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, quelling huge, weeks-long demonstrations demanding greater political freedoms. Decades on, China still censors any mention of the crackdown.

On Tuesday evening, hundreds of people converged around Taipei's Liberty Square for an annual vigil, placing candles on a laid-flat banner with the date of the crackdown, while listening to activists criticise the Chinese government for alleged rights abuses.

China claims democratic, self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, to be seized one day.

"We will continue to work hard to keep this historical memory alive and touch everyone who cares about Chinese democracy," Lai, Taiwan's newly inaugurated president, said in a Facebook post Tuesday.

"Because this reminds us that democracy and freedom are not easy to come by, we must... respond to autocracy with freedom, face the expansion of authoritarianism with courage."

China has repeatedly lashed out against Lai, branding him a "dangerous separatist" and a "saboteur of peace and stability".

His inauguration in May prompted Beijing to launch military drills around the self-ruled island.

Lai's Democratic Progressive Party has long defended the sovereignty and democracy of Taiwan, which has its own government, military and currency.

"China is becoming more and more authoritarian and (Chinese President) Xi Jinping is like an emperor," said Taipei vigil attendee Vincent Lee, 46.

"I think commemorating June 4th is a way to protect Taiwan's democracy and freedom against China's dictatorship... we need to protect Taiwan's free and democratic values."

 Tourists at Tiananmen 

 China's Tiananmen crackdown killed hundreds of people, with some estimating the death toll was higher than a thousand.

Beijing described the events as riots, while rights groups and exiled dissidents depict it as a massacre of innocent people, including many students.

Many young people today in China are unaware of the 1989 events due to wide-reaching censorship.

In Beijing on Tuesday, tourist groups visited Tiananmen Square donning matching neon hats and posing for pictures beside the mausoleum of China's founding leader Mao Zedong.

The Tiananmen Mothers, a group comprised of relatives of victims of the 1989 crackdown, called for the tragedy to be resolved "in an open, fair and just manner" in a statement.

"We shall never allow your lives to be sacrificed in vain. The historical tragedy must not repeat," it said.

Asked about the anniversary on Tuesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said "the Chinese government has long since reached a clear conclusion".

"We have always opposed anyone using this as a pretext to attack and smear China and to interfere in China's internal affairs," spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

The European Union said Tuesday it "stands in solidarity with the families of the victims and calls on the Chinese authorities to... take concrete steps towards accountability."

It also expressed concern over "recent measures to curtail commemorations and censor discussions about Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong".

 People still remember' 

 In Hong Kong, once the sole place on Chinese soil where public commemoration was allowed, an annual Tiananmen vigil has been banned, and AFP journalists on Tuesday saw scores of police patrolling an area of the city where tens of thousands previously gathered each year to mourn the dead.

As night fell, police intensified searches of people around Victoria Park and the surrounding district where the vigil was once held.

The mass mourning was a symbol of Hong Kong's unique freedoms, but public tributes have not been permitted since 2020, the year that Beijing imposed a national security law to quell dissent.

In the week leading up to the anniversary, Hong Kong police arrested eight people over commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown on social media, with authorities accusing them of publishing "seditious" online posts.

On Tuesday, AFP journalists saw police take away an elderly activist, Benedict Ng, who held up posters with dates of democracy movements written on them -- including the Tiananmen anniversary. His lawyer later told AFP he was released.

Police did not respond to queries on deployment numbers, but said it was done "in accordance with the threats to public safety, public order and national security".

Seated on a park bench reading the play "May 35" -- a coded reference to June 4 -- theatre worker Tsang said she "came here for those who can't speak out for themselves".

"I want to show that people still remember," she told AFP. "People may not come out because they are worried, but there is still a seed in their hearts."


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