Remembering June 4th in Taipei

On June 4th, 1989, Chinese government troops violently suppressed student demonstrations on Tiananmen Square urging for political reforms. While hundreds or thousands were possibly killed, thousands more wounded, official numbers are missing as the Chinese government continues to forbid even discussions of the protests. Internationally, a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks that left the Square a day later reached iconic status as “tank man.”

The incident marked the end of the Chinese pro democracy movement as well as a time of relative press freedom. Since then, many people have been jailed in China for even reminding of the day. Until 2020, June 4th was still commemorated in Hong Kong, but this year again, people have been jailed for “disrupting order in public places” or “acts with seditious intent.” Some were arrested for small acts like lifting an (unlit) candle or driving a car with a plate reading “US 8964.”

In Taiwan, the memory of June 4th is still alive. At its 34th anniversary this year, an official memorial event was held right in front of the Chiang Kai-Check memorial – in itself a political statement, given Chiang’s history with regards to China and the suppression through his own party, the KMT. (Too much to get into here. I wrote a bit about it here.) The event featured a big stage, several stands of different NGOs (including from Tibet and Hong Kong), the date of the incident, “8964” in candles, and a replica of the pillar of shame from Hong Kong. (The pillars of shame are a series of sculptures by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt remembering various “shameful events.” The first such pillar commemorates the Tiananmen massacre and was erected in Victoria Park in Hong Kong in 1997.) Approximately 1000 people attended the event despite heavy rain.

The number of visitors might seem high or low, and thus highlights the complex role the Tiananmen incident plays in Taiwan. Its broader messages of liberty and freedom from oppression are important especially in these times. They are a reason for many young Taiwanese and Tibetan and Hong Kong activists to come. At the same time, others might stay away for privacy reasons. Everyone here should certainly expects to be photographed, and given the tight family and business relationships between Taiwan and China (and its strenuous relationship), it wouldn’t surprise me if many people might expect a slight chance of problems somehow some-when later. But there are broader issues why the protests play a less central part in the Taiwanese consciousness. The Tiananmen protests took place after Taiwan split from mainland China, and it can be seen as a sign of Taiwanese pride that the event never reached the importance it had in Hong Kong (which has a similar or even slightly smaller population than the Taipei metropolitan area). And of course, any expectation raised by western observers is formed by our very understanding of the meaning of such democratic rituals like protests and public vigils. Yet, Taiwan is a young democracy, a democracy with a distinct cultural heritage, and such rituals don’t necessarily translate directly into all generations of Taiwan’s culture – and don’t need to.

As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, Taiwan just experiences its own #MeToo moment, as politicians especially of the ruling (liberal) Democratic Progressive Party and the Chinese Dissident community are accused of sexual harassment or even rape. Currently, one of the persons in the center of attention is the Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan, further complicating how especially Taiwan’s youth relates to the issue.

I visited the event towards the end, mainly to take pictures, maybe to meet some people I know. The atmosphere was relaxed, a fascinating mix of confidence, pride, and determination in the air. Tiananmen meant something for the people here, but even more, Taiwan’s democracy, rule of law, and civil liberties meant something for the people here. While of course much of the evening was performative – there were dozens or hundreds of photographers, many activists, speeches, journalists from international media – the gravity of the moment was imminent.

(You might like my report on the Oslo Freedom Forum if you are interested in civil society in Taiwan.)