I was scrolling through my Facebook feed at 2 am on June 4, when I saw an article on “12 Photos From the Tiananmen Square Protests China Wants You to Forget.” Most of the photos were of things like burning tanks, bloody students, bodies in the streets. Scenes of confrontation and conflict, students vs. soldiers.
Images like these were what I had always pictured when thinking of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Images of the crackdown. Of Tank Man. Of student hunger strikers sitting in the square, strips of cloth marked with slogans wrapped around their heads, cloth shoes on their feet.
This was how I thought of Tiananmen until last year, when I found a black film canister inside an old shoebox I had inherited from my parents. Inside were photos that my uncle, an art student in Beijing, had taken in the weeks before the Tiananmen Square massacre. He had hidden them away and somehow gotten them out of China to my parents. Then they sat there for 25 years, waiting to be seen.
My uncle took pictures of young people marching down the street, smiling, filled with hope.
Of banners carrying messages of support from ordinary citizens, and even the police.
Here were photos of parents, bringing their dressed-up children to see the Goddess of Democracy.
This was what it was like before June 4.
It’s not just the images of tanks and bleeding students that the Communist Party wants to erase from the minds of its people. It’s these images, too.
The Party has always traded in fear and silence. They don’t want people to know that there was a time when Chinese people believed that the government could reform, when they believed that marching down the street could bring change. That there was a time when the people were just not afraid enough.
In one of the photos, a sign says, “The people will not forget 1989.” It was a time when the inevitability of being crushed by the state didn’t seem quite so inevitable. Now, even talking about talking about Tiananmen is taboo. How times have changed.
And yet, three months after finding my uncle’s photos, I was standing in the middle of a freeway, taking pictures of young people and tents and yellow umbrellas, trying to document the biggest democracy protests in Hong Kong. Is this how my uncle felt, like he was standing in a moment that was so big, but still could be over in an instant?
Hong Kong, of course, is so much freer than the mainland. It remains the only place in China where people can even commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. But this year, the Goddess of Democracy statue in Victoria Park is plastered with Umbrella Movement stickers.
And as students in Hong Kong prepare for another round of protests this month, they may be keeping the spirit of Tiananmen burning, in the only corner of China where it can, for now, survive.