Control, Alter, Delete:Hong Kong Activists and Academics are Hurrying to Digitize Historical RecordsHistorians in the News
tags: China, archives, censorship, Hong Kong
The only museum in the world dedicated to preserving the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, is on the 10th floor of a small commercial building in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon, Hong Kong. In one cabinet, there is a camera, a notebook, and a graduation certificate once owned by Wu Xiangdong, a 21-year-old factory worker who was shot in the neck the night before June 4, 1989. In another, the red helmet worn by Wang Nan, who was a second-year student at Beijing Yuetan High School when he, too, was shot.
The parents of Wu and Wang — alongside other survivors — have donated their possessions for display in this museum. A TV screen broadcasts testimonies from demonstrators and journalists who survived the events, while exhibition boards provide a detailed timeline of the protests. Newspaper clips and official Chinese government documents are kept in a small library.
The museum’s first exhibition was held in 2012 by a group of activists, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, that formed at the height of the 1989 protests. Every year since the crackdown, it has held a candlelight vigil in memory of those who died.
“The aim of the June 4 museum is to restitute history, preserve the facts, and ensure they don’t disappear from people’s minds,” says Mak Hoi-wah, a 69-year-old social activist who serves as chairman of the museum’s managing committee.
Mak says that, before the pandemic, around a third of the museum’s visitors every year came from mainland China, where the Communist Party has tried to obliterate memories of the events of June 4. An official death toll was never released, but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand. Afterward, student leaders were jailed, and the families of those who died were kept under tight surveillance. Today, publicly discussing the massacre in China is taboo, and mentions of it are scrubbed from literature and social media.
“Since the national security law was introduced, it has become questionable whether we can still continue with the work that we have always been doing,” Mak says. “It won’t be a surprise if they close down our museum — we’re just counting the days to see when this may happen.”
As they wait for that day to come, the museum’s supporters are racing to digitize its exhibits, creating a comprehensive, public, and searchable online database that could become a repository for banned knowledge about the events of 1989 — one beyond the reach of China’s censors. Their efforts are part of a wider movement in the city to chronicle events and preserve history that the Communist Party would rather see expunged.