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Tiananmen Square: The significance and controversy of June 4, explained

Hundreds of people in Hong Kong defied local bans to hold a vigil in memory of Tiananmen Square. What’s significant about June 4? What is the ongoing controversy?

People mark the anniversary of the military crackdown on a pro-democracy student movement in Beijing.
People light LED candles to mark the anniversary of the military crackdown on a pro-democracy student movement in Beijing, outside Victoria Park in Hong Kong, Friday, June 4, 2021.
Kin Cheung, Associated Press

June 4 marks the 32nd anniversary of the 1989 events in China’s Tiananmen Square, a deadly crackdown by the Chinese government against pro-democracy demonstrators. Every year since 1989, pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong have held a candlelight vigil to honor the dead, The Associated Press reported.

  • For the second year in a row, the Hong Kong government banned the vigil, The New York Times reported.
  • Hong Kong police warned people not to participate in any unauthorized assemblies or face penalties of up to five years in jail, according to the AP.

Hundreds of people showed up anyway at Victoria Park in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong, The Guardian said.

What happened in Tiananmen Square?

In 1989, Chinese students led a large-scale pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On the evening of June 3 and morning of June 4, the Chinese military cracked down on protesters, The Guardian reported.

  • Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed, according to the AP.

China has long aimed to repress the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre in widespread “public amnesia,” The New York Times said.

“Chinese officials have said that the country’s rapid economic development since what they call the ‘political turmoil’ of 1989 proves that decisions made at the time were correct,” the AP reported.

What is the significance of Hong Kong’s candlelight vigils?

Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil commemorating the killings is the only large-scale memorial to Tainanmen that happens on Chinese soil, The New York Times said. No memorial events are allowed in mainland China, according to The Guardian.

  • The vigil has become its own historic event and a symbol of ongoing public support for democracy in China, The New York Times and The Guardian reported.