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A tiny museum in Hong Kong fights to reclaim the memory of the Tiananmen Square uprising

June 4, 2016

Tucked between dive bars and boutique hotels in a popular shopping district is a shoebox museum that encapsulates more than a quarter-century of defiance in this semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

There are no signs outside. And only the most determined visitors venture here in order to gaze at the open wounds of history.

The cracked metal helmet of a teenager who promised his parents he’d come home soon after checking on his classmates who were protesting against the government. The bullet that was once lodged in the hip of a demonstrator who is now living in the United States under political asylum. A handwritten death note by a college student before he prepared to face off rifle fire and rolling tanks.

By presenting evidence of the crackdown of the 1989 pro-democracy uprising on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the June 4th Museum counteracts the enforced oblivion in mainland China, where authorities have all but blotted out the bloody episode.

Many mainland Chinese born in the last 30 years know little to nothing about what happened on June 4, 1989. On every anniversary, families of the several hundred to few thousand estimated to have been killed by Chinese soldiers are placed under surveillance. Even private commemorative gestures are punishable crimes.

But in Hong Kong, which is afforded the freedoms of speech and assembly, the Tiananmen Square massacre is commemorated by the museum, which opened in April 2014, and by tens of thousands of people who march in an annual candlelight vigil in the territory’s central park. The perennial memorial is organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a coalition formed to aid the protesters. Two years ago, the Alliance established the permanent museum on a mortgage and donated funds.

“Its most important mission is to preserve the memories and the facts of Tiananmen,” said Richard Tsoi, the Alliance’s vice chairman, who helps oversee the museum.

For mainland visitors like Eric Li, 32, the museum was critical to his fact-finding weekend jaunt from Beijing.

“I just want to learn the truth. When more people learn the truth, then perhaps we can change the country,” said Li. “But it’s difficult.”

Remembering the Tiananmen Square uprising > > >>

But now, the museum is facing a difficult future.

A dispute with the building’s owner appears likely to force the museum to close by the end of the year. Its backers hope to raise money to build a new home. But it may face a more existential threat than the loss of its lease.

On this anniversary, more Hong Kongers, especially the post-Tiananmen generation of young activists which increasingly is charting the territory’s own pro-democracy movement, have come to see fighting for democracy in mainland China – the Alliance’s avowed goal – as a lost cause, or at least a rallying cry that rings hollower than ever. And they, who pride themselves as Hong Kongers more than as Chinese nationals, especially chafe at the Alliance’s twinning of Chinese patriotism and pursuit of a democratic future.

So for the first time, student leaders planned to sit out the vigil on Saturday.

“We no longer aspire to build a democratic China,” said Althea Suen, student union president of the University of Hong Kong. “Instead of chasing a pipe dream, we’ll be better served shouldering the responsibilities relevant to my generation.”

Replicas of the Goddess of Democracy – the plaster statue which, in 1989, faced off Mao’s portrait on the square – continue to greet visitors at the museum and at local college campuses. But if students turn away from democracy on the mainland it could render the museum politically petrified and doom its current fundraising campaign to stay open.

For many young people in Hong Kong, the failure of the student-led Umbrella Movement to pressure Beijing for the right to vote in a free and fair election has fueled growing alienation from China.

But while they’ve begun to reject Tiananmen as their fight, they were have been emboldened by how history has not repeated itself: There was no bloody crackdown of the Umbrella Movement.

However, the transitional framework that grants them the freedoms to carry on the fight is due to expire by 2047, when Hong Kong is to fully integrate with mainland China.

Still, the student leaders planned to mark the anniversary – but on their own terms, by imbuing it with new meaning and urgency. Student unions at various universities will hold forums to explore the way forward.

Tsoi, who joined the Alliance as a college student leader at the time of Tiananmen, said it may be possible to broaden the museum’s mission to include more pressing social movements, but for now “this is a tool of resistance.”

“Museums are a barometer of the openness of a society,” said Denise Ho, a Yale University historian on modern China who taught in Hong Kong two years ago and published a critique on the museum. “Even if this is a pet project by a political organization doing what the government cannot or will not, it still creates an opposing voice, and it’s useful.”

A stone’s throw from June 4th Museum is the official Hong Kong History Museum, which carries no mention of the crackdown.

Ryan Kilpatrick, 23, a Hong Kong University student, came for the June 4 Museum’s opening and recently returned when he got word of its possible shuttering.

“It’s regrettable that young people no longer hope for a democratic China,” said Kilpatrick. “To be here again is to remember how powerful that idea was.”

Law is a special correspondent

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