News and Analysis

Communist China Appears To Block Online Tiananmen Square Museum, Follows Crackdown On Other Exhibits
MARK RALSTON via Getty Images

China is continuing its crackdown on symbols of freedom in Hong Kong, and the latest casualties are museums documenting the Chinese military’s 1989 massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands (estimates vary) of student-led protestors in Tiananmen Square.

Last week, administrators of the online 8964 Museum — a name that refers to the day the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on peaceful Tiananmen activists — reported that Hong Kong-based users were no longer able to access the site without a virtual private network. Representatives for the museum are calling it a “disgraceful act to erase historical memory.”

Local internet service providers have so far refused to answer questions over whether they are acting on the direction of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress public access to the site. But while authorities have not explicitly admitted to any involvement, when asked about the museum’s deplatforming, they put out a statement that seemed to tacitly confirm they are restricting access.

After saying that Hong Kong police cannot comment on individual cases, they asserted that a new national security law enacted in 2020 allows police to “require service providers to take actions to prohibit electronic messages posted on electronic platforms that are likely to endanger national security.”

When China passed the legislation last year, many critics called it the end of an independent Hong Kong. In 1997, Britain gave the rule over its former colony back to China with the understanding that the territory would operate under a “one country, two systems” framework that would provide it many more freedoms than mainland China. With the National Security Law, that has swiftly begun to change.

Enacted during secret sessions that bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature, it gives police the power to imprison dissenters without trial, shut down newspapers, and investigate cultural institutions without regard to local Hong Kong authorities. As Amnesty International has said, based on the law’s tenets, “‘Endangering national security’ can mean virtually anything,” including wearing clothing with certain pro-freedom slogans.

Under this oppression, the Tiananmen Square massacre has become an even more important symbol for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement as the region struggles to maintain its semi-independent status.

Annual vigils to honor the victims of Chinese authoritarianism 32 years ago draw tens of thousands of activists to Hong Kong parks. Even though Beijing banned such gatherings for the last two years, ostensibly because of Covid, huge crowds still turned out, carrying candles and American flags and singing the U.S. national anthem. Many were subsequently arrested with organizers of the vigils, leaders of a group called Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, jailed.

Since that time, groups like the Alliance have suffered intense pressure from the CCP, including facing charges for being “[agents] of foreign forces,” and “inciting subversion.” As a result, the group formally announced last week that it was disbanding.

The 8964 Museum was an off-shoot of the brick-and-mortar June 4th Museum the Alliance had opened in 2019 to educate the public and preserve the record of what happened in 1989. Three months ago, a new police force known as the national security unit raided the exhibit on charges of operating as an entertainment venue without a license, carting away artwork, artifacts, and historical documents. The BBC reported that one of the items police were seen removing was a paper model of the Goddess of Democracy. They then seized the museum’s financial records and froze its bank accounts.

As that investigation was ongoing, the museum reopened in August as an online-only exhibit with a new name, though organizers have been careful to highlight that it was crowdfunded and was operating independently of the Alliance.

One Hong Kong digital rights activist who has relocated to Germany told The Washington Post the museum’s suppression will have a chilling effect and raise residents’ fears about the security law. “We are a step closer to implementing the Great Firewall in Hong Kong,” she said of Beijing’s Internet controls.

According to ArtNet, another cultural institution, The M+ Museum of contemporary art, which is due to open in Hong Kong in November to great anticipation, has removed Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei’s famous Tiananmen “middle finger” photo from its website. The museum says it is waiting on a review from the government over whether it can feature Ai’s work.

In an op-ed for ArtNet about the removal, Ai said:

The fate of the M+ Museum that we are witnessing today brings to mind how certain other Western museums—the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Modern in London—recently have rushed to cozy up to China, bowing and scraping before the great rising authoritarian power, bubbling with flattery at every turn …

In China and elsewhere, political connections are the fuel of the economic colonialism that occupies the core of today’s surging globalization. In China’s state capitalism, high officials enjoy unchecked power and wield it in an environment totally empty of democratic supervision. As a consequence, behind the strong organizational structure of the Communist Party of China, there has arisen an immensely complex web of private interests of the highest-ranking Party families and their minions in the bureaucracies. No item of business with a foreign country can possibly go forward without involvement with this web. Shared corruption is the name of the game, and the pattern is so common as to be accepted as commonplace …

The Chinese regime’s goal, in this happy world to come, is to establish that its way of doing things is normal and legitimate. Its leaders are well aware that spread of its culture will enhance the allure of its political system. What Western museums and other art institutions want is to attract Chinese financial backing. At a personal level, movers and shakers in the Western art world are also looking for political and economic advantages inside China. Every museum in China, whether run by Chinese or Westerners, wants a special relationship with that one government, that one Party, whose favor is essential for success. This marks the final triumph of cultural globalization. 

When the physical Tiananmen museum was raided in June, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said on a briefing call, “The United States condemns actions by Hong Kong authorities that prompted organizers to close the June 4th Museum that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.” She added, “Hong Kong and Beijing authorities continue to silence dissenting voices by also attempting to erase the horrific massacre from history.”

So far, the Biden administration has not commented on the CCP’s latest efforts to erase Tiananmen from Hong Kong’s cultural memory.

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