People around the world are posting pictures of themselves mimicking one of the most iconic images from the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, as Hongkongers prepare to mark the 29th anniversary of the brutal June 4 crackdown.
The pictures are part of a performance art project by Australia-based Chinese artist and cartoonist Badiucao, who in 2016 posed as “tank man” in Adelaide, South Australia.
“Tank man” is the nickname for an unidentified man who, carrying two plastic bags, stood in front of a line of tanks on June 5, 1989.
Footage of the man was taken the morning after the Chinese government declared martial law and sent the military into Tiananmen Square to disperse students protesting for democracy.
The death toll for crackdown, which saw automatic rifles and tanks turned on unarmed protesters, has been reported as several hundred and possibly more than 1000. The BBC last year, however, reported as many as 10,000 people could have been killed, according to UK government documents from the time.
In the video, tank man can be seen blocking the tanks as they try to maneuver around him. At one point he climbs on top of one before he is taken away by other protesters.
Badiucao said: “Tank Man has been a visual totem for protests of China since 1989. But it is also fading away due to brutal censorship and sophisticated propaganda from the Chinese government. The only way to keep it alive is to represented it creatively and bring the figure relevant to what is happening contemporarily.”
For the massacre’s 29th anniversary, Badiucao invited men and women around the world to pose as the iconic protester and carry two tote bags bearing one of five images or terms that have been censored on the mainland.
These images include one of the Twitter bird flying over the “great firewall”, a yellow umbrella — the symbol of the 2014 umbrella movement protests — bearing the slogan “I want true universal suffrage”, a white rabbit with a bowl of rice, and Winnie the Pooh and Peppa Pig wearing tops that read “’89, June 4” in Chinese.
Winnie the Pooh was banned in the mainland because netizens pointed out that President Xi Jinping looks like the lovable bear; Peppa Pig was banned just last month because according to Global Times it “promotes gangster attitudes” and the cartoon’s popularity among adults “shows the power of online subcultures among young people”).
After the term #metoo was banned on mainland social media, activists got around censors by talking about sexual harassment by using the term “rice bunny”, which in Mandarin is pronounced “mi tu”.
One person taking part in the performance art piece is Zhou Fengsuo, who was one of the student leaders during June 4 protests and who was, at one point, on the Chinese Communist Party’s “most-wanted” list, according to Human Rights Watch.
Zhou, who is now based in the US, posted these photos of him posing outside the Capitol building and the National Mall in Washington DC.
— 周锋锁 Fengsuo Zhou (@ZhouFengSuo) June 3, 2018
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists are preparing to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the massacre in different parts of the city. Hong Kong, along with Macau, are the only Chinese territories where June 4 is commemorated in public.
Attendance at the annual candlelight vigil in Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park — which will take place tonight — is again expected to shrink compared to previous years, as student unions boycott the event for the forth time.
The move to shun the vigil by younger activists has been driven, to a large extent, by a rise in anti-China sentiment following the 2014 Umbrella movement.
Dismayed with the lack of progress on political reform in the city, many young Hongkongers have voiced disagreement with the vigil’s main message of democratization in China, saying the focus should be on Hong Kong.