The Tiananmen Square incident: 33 years on

Written by Aneetta Peedikayil

June 3, 2022


Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons | License details

On June 4, 1989, the world witnessed an infamous event widely known as the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. Economic prosperity and exposure to liberal ideas led to calls for political and economic reform. This was met with harsh measures by the Chinese government resulting in the opening of fire on the unarmed protesters leading to thousands of deaths.

Hu Yaobang, the late Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary-general was seen as a torchbearer for democratic reform. His forced resignation in 1987 and later death in April 1989 was a catalyst that sparked demonstrations by thousands of student-led protesters in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.  By May 1989, the demonstrations spread across various Chinese cities garnering global attention due to the presence of Western media that also covered the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union. Attempts to curb the protests in Tiananmen Square were watered down by obstruction from Beijing residents. However, by the dawn of June 4, 1989, the military had crushed the domestic resistance by use of force and armed weapons on its unarmed populace leading to thousands of casualties. To this date, the number of lives lost remains unknown including those of aid workers caring for the wounded, and parents trying to locate their children, among others.  

One of the most notable memories of the incident relates to The Tank Man, an unidentified individual whose attempt to dissuade the military tank from causing further harm was appreciated throughout the world. Nonetheless, the incident remains absent from discussion in both academic and socio-political circles in China. But China’s special administrative region of Hong Kong had stood as an exception, holding outdoor candlelight vigils and church masses to commemorate the incident every year. However, it was brought to a standstill with the imposition of the national security law in 2020, and the invocation of COVID-19 protocols. Any remnants commemorating the incident remain repressed such as the ban on gatherings in Victoria Park and the removal of the Pillar of Shame from the University of Hong Kong campus in December 2021. Interestingly, the Tiananmen Square incident’s 33rd anniversary coincides with the Dragon Boat Festival celebrated on June 3 this year. The festival commemorates the patriotism of Qu Yuan, the famed poet who lived during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) in the state of Chu, China.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has taken the lead in holding vigils to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. The vigils will be held across San Francisco, Washington DC, Seoul, Taipei, Ulaanbaatar, Sydney, Oslo, Paris, Amsterdam and London on 4 June, 2022.

Potential effects on travellers:

  • Travellers will not be able to access Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on June 4 as it will be closed until 00:30 hours on June 51. It is advised to avoid travel to this area on June 48
  • Travellers must note that due to the government’s COVID-19 protocols, access to Tiananmen Square in China may also be limited2
  • Travellers must avoid initiating or participating in gatherings in China and Hong Kong to commemorate the incident as they would risk violating China’s security-related laws. Travellers may be fined or imprisoned3.
  • Travellers should refrain from making comments on the Tiananmen Square incident during their stay in China and Hong Kong3, 4, 5.
  • A travel rush can be expected in China and Hong Kong due to the Dragon Boat Festival. It is advised to make travel plans accordingly with strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols6,7.  
  • Due to their stringent zero-COVID-19 policies, travellers are advised to check Sitata’s  website for detailed information on the entry requirements to China and Hong Kong. Consider getting a Sitata membership for up-to-date travel and safety alerts. 

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