The World's Only Tiananmen Square Museum May Be Closing - Atlas Obscura
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The World’s Only Tiananmen Square Museum May Be Closing

A legal fight plus an ideological shift for young activists may end one of the few places mainland Chinese citizens can learn about the June 4th Incident.

The current entrance to the June 4th Museum. (Photo: Dltl2010/CC BY-SA-3.0)

Nearly 30 years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre—generally referred to in Chinese as the June 4th Incident (六四事件)—public discussion of the event continues to be effectively banned in China, with government censorship of internet search results and ongoing monitoring and intimidation of those who survived the demonstrations. The taboo surrounding the event may be why half of the visitors to Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum, the world’s only museum dedicated to remembering the incident, come from mainland China.

Unfortunately, it may also be the reason the world’s only Tiananmen Square museum may be forced to close.

The June 4th Museum was established in 2014 by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. As Laya Maheshwari notes in Al Jazeera, Hong Kong is uniquely suited to be home to the museum, as Hong Kong’s degree of autonomy as a Special Administrative Region in China allows greater freedom than on the mainland. The museum operates out of the Foo Hoo Centre in the busy Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, and is designed to encourage visitors to identify with the frustrations that motivated the 1989 protesters. Al Jazeera describes the entrance to the museum:

Anyone entering the June 4th Museum in Hong Kong must pass through a narrow corridor, one that gets increasingly narrower the further they walk. The passages are an intentional manipulation of space meant to recreate the sense of oppression that students and activists in mainland China felt and protested against during the Tiananmen Square protests in the summer of 1989.

Similarly, artifacts from the incident emphasize the individuals who sacrificed their health or even their lives to agitate for democratic reforms. In the Los Angeles Times, Violet Law highlights the “cracked metal helmet of a teenager who promised his parents he’d come home soon after checking on his classmates,” a bullet extracted from the hip of a demonstrator who fled China for political asylum in the United States, and “a handwritten death note” from a college student who knew that facing the government forces could require the ultimate sacrifice.

Exhibits such as these present evidence of what occurred in the Square that day, and the maintenance of this historical record is at core of the museum’s mission. “Its most important mission is to preserve the memories and the facts of Tiananmen,” Alliance vice chairman Richard Tsoi told the Times.

Exhibits from the June 4th Museum. This photo was taken when the museum occupied a temporary space in June 2013. (Photo: tcy3282/CC BY-SA-2.0)

While Hong Kong does not experience the heavy-handed state censorship found in mainland China, the museum has faced an ongoing battle since the day it opened. For two years, the museum has been engaged in a protracted legal battle with the owners’ corporation of the Foo Hoo Centre, which claims in court filings that the usage prescription in the Alliance’s lease does not allow the space to be used for public exhibitions, and that in operating a museum the Alliance is creating safety concerns by allowing too many visitors onto the floor.

However, the Alliance believes there is more behind the lawsuit than the uses authorized by the building’s deed. Alliance chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan claims that a policy requiring museum visitors to provide identification and explain the purpose of their visit has driven away visitors from the mainland, noting that while 50 percent of visitors in 2014 were from the mainland, the number dropped to around 30 percent when the identification policy was implemented in 2015. “I tend to believe they are politically motivated….the other side seem to have unlimited resources,” Ho told Agence France-Presse.

The ownership corporation has rebuffed multiple journalists’ attempts to confirm the motivations behind the lawsuit, but there’s some evidence for Ho’s allegations. Al Jazeera reports that “one corporation member, Yeung Cho-ming, had told the South China Morning Post that ‘the [Tiananmen Square incident] is sensitive and contentious’, and that the corporation fears the museum will bring it ‘trouble’.” Similarly, scholar Louisa Lim told Al Jazeera that “the campaign against the museum began by complaining about the number of visitors before it had even opened,” and while AFP spoke to one building tenant who complained about visitors crowding the building, others weren’t aware the museum was there at all.

While the legal battle may pose the most direct threat to the museum’s existence, an ideological rift among activists simultaneously threatens to undermine the museum’s relevance. For the first time, according to the Los Angeles Times, some pro-democracy Hong Kong activists have chosen to sit out the Alliance-organized annual memorial vigil for the victims of Tiananmen Square, questioning whether democracy in mainland China is achievable—or even relevant.

“We no longer aspire to build a democratic China,” student activist Althea Suen told the Times, “Instead of chasing a pipe dream, we’ll be better served shouldering the responsibilities relevant to my generation.”

According to The Guardian, young Hong Kong activists like Suen view the new “localist” movement—which focuses on preserving and expanding Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy—as vastly more important than fighting for democratization on the mainland.

Despite these challenges, the Alliance continues to work towards ensuring the June 4th Museum can remain open. In April, the Alliance began an effort to raise HK$3 million (about $400,000) to relocate the museum to a larger venue. Aside from extracting the museum from its legal fight, a new home would provide opportunities to hold educational talks, Ho told the South China Morning Post. Whether or not the fundraiser is successful, the museum will close its current doors by the end of the year.

Hopefully, the museum will be able to continue to provide a way for mainlanders to learn about the incident that’s so deliberately, thoroughly concealed from them. As mainland museum visitor Eric Li told the Times, “I just want to learn the truth. When more people learn the truth, then perhaps we can change the country.”