Why Do the Taiwanese Need to Remember the Tiananmen Massacre?

Hong Kong may have taken the lead in observing the Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but other Chinese speaking communities, such as the people of Taiwan, also organize annual candlelight vigils in memory of the incident.

In 1989, thousands of Taiwanese had rallied in support of of the student-led protests that took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, protests that were forcibly suppressed by the authorities through a military crackdown that resulted in a large number of student and other civil casualties.This year too, hundreds of Taiwanese attended the candle night vigil at the Liberty Square in Taipei to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.

The backdrop of the candle-light vigil shows two tanks in front of the Gate of Tiananmen. The slogan said, "Passing-by Tiananmen, Everyone can be the Tankman". Photo from event organizer.

The backdrop of the candle-light vigil shows two tanks in front of the Gate of Tiananmen. The slogan said, “Passing-by Tiananmen, Everyone can be the Tankman”. Photo from event organizer.

This year, the theme of the vigil was ‘Passing-by Tiananmen’. The huge backdrop showing the tanks entering the Tiananmen Square highlighted the message that people would be able to stop the tanks, which represent the authoritarian rule in China. The organizers of the event, Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, Taiwan Students for the Advancement of Democratization in China and the New School for Democracy explained in their event statement [zh] why it is important for the Taiwanese society to remember the Tiananmen Massacre:


Taiwan government under President Ma Ying Jeou, has been active in unifying the cross-strait economy and the economic deal has slowly evolved into a political negotiation that tightens the connection between China and Taiwan. Taiwanese people can cover up their ears, imagine that the status quo of no independence, no unification and no military confrontation remains unchanged. But the policy of Taiwan government will continue to strengthen the connection with China.[…] The June 4 incident is not just history. It is the foundation of “China factor” that we are facing today. To remember June 4 is to resist “China model” and “the rise of a strong state” that builds upon the repression of human rights. It is also a critique of the coalition of crony capitalists in East Asia whose wealth and interests are relied upon by the China party-state political system. […] June 4 is not just an issue of the “Kingdom” which is far away from us. It has local political meaning. To remember June 4, is not only a concern for the democratization of China, but an awareness to prevent the Taiwan government from going backward to authoritarianism.

The statement has been echoed by many human rights activists, such as Yang Hsien-hung, an advocate for China human rights. Yang urged [zh]:


If Taiwanese society no longer remembers June 4th, Taiwan [civic society as a whole] would be finished, and same would be for American society. Fortunately, this is not the case now because whether in Taiwan or in the United States, it has become a tradition to commemorate Tiananmen [massacre]. The era of student movements have already taken root in Taiwan, and this time, they launched in Taiwan the activity, “Passing-by Tiananmen, All the People are Tank Man”.

In response to the criticism of his six-year silence on the issue, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou issued a “reflection” this year. Rather than a straight forward condemnation, he described the incident as a tragedy that is a “great historic wound [zh]” but expressed optimism about the development of rule of law and democracy in China. On the other hand, the opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) addressed the current human right situation [zh] in China and condemned the arrest and prosecution of dissidents on the eve of the June 4 anniversary.

Hundreds of people attended the candle-light vigil at liberty square, Taipei. Photo taken and provided by Paul Huang. Used with permission.

Hundreds of people attended the candle-light vigil at Liberty Square, Taipei. Photo taken by Paul Huang. Used with permission.

Despite the effort to connect the human rights condition in China with the concerns of the Taiwanese people, there have been very few discussions online about the incident.

Jeff Huang, who attended the vigil observed lack of emotional attachment [zh] among the Taiwanese, to the historical incident:


In Taiwan, 6/4 is only an examination question in history textbooks, and it lacks a sense of identification. I remember when previously I was in Hong Kong doing research on the Chinese people, this kind of national identification in Hong Kong was extremely strong, and every year, there are tens of thousands that attend 6/4 rallies. The concern of the Taiwanese people towards 6/4 does not originate from identification, but rather from a persistence in (the idea of) democracy and freedom, and they will not willingly give up democracy for China or accept China’s authoritarianism on Taiwan. Regardless of which part of the world it comes from, the ideal of human rights should be a promoted in one voice by all of us.

Lin Feifan, a student leader of the Sunflower Movement (a movement led by a coalition of students and civic groups between March 18 and April 10 2014 to protest against the cross-strait trade pact between mainland China and Taiwan) explained why the Taiwanese youth were apathetic towards June 4th Incident:


Taiwanese people are not apathetic towards June 4th commemorations, Rather, they have no particular feelings on ‘China’, especially the youth and this could be a result caused by history.

 However, for the attendance at the candle-light vigil, it is obvious that many in Taiwan are not indifferent – rather they feel the need to remember history both for championing human rights in general as well as ensure that Taiwan upholds it's democratic values and does not go ‘the China way’.

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