In Brief

Artists Use Liquor Bottles and Inflatable Tanks to Highlight the Pain of Tiananmen Square Protests

30 years later, suggestive liquor bottles and inflatable military tanks capture the fraught response to the legacy of civil disobedience in China and Taiwan.

Photo of the entrance to the Forbidden City, across from Tiananmen Square (image by songkai0620 via Pixabay)

Every year, China performs an extensive “stability maintenance” campaign in which activists, critics of the government, and outspoken parents of those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are relocated outside of Beijing and placed under house arrest. The silence of censorship is placed at a premium, and social media is scrubbed of any references to the Communist Party’s massacre of the ’89 Democracy Movement. This crackdown on civil society is arguably at its peak during the months of May and June when online users notice seemingly innocent words like “today,” “yesterday,” and “tomorrow” are blocked.

Thirty years later, nobody knows for certain how many people were killed during the government’s armed suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. China initially said that 200 civilians and several dozen security officers died in Beijing following their confrontation with the “counter-revolutionary riots” on June 4, 1989. Later estimates have ranged from several hundred to more than 1,000. Declassified documents released by the British government in 2017 from a secret diplomatic cable by Sir Alan Donald, the country’s ambassador to China at the time of the protests, claimed that at least 10,000 were killed.

Government efforts to erase the legacy of June 4 have backfired, prompting activists in China and Taiwan to commemorate the violent suppression by any means necessary.

Reports indicate that the activist and filmmaker Huang Huang was detained by Chinese authorities in the early hours of May 17 after he had tweeted a political meme earlier that morning, which featured a liquor bottle marked “64.” That number is commonly used to memorialize the Tiananmen Square protests, and according to ArtAsiaPacific, the type of alcohol inside the bottle is called baijiu, which is a close homonym to the Chinese characters for “89,” ba jiu. Last month, four men were sentenced to several years in jail for recreating the baijiu bottles with a label that read, “Always remember June 4, 1989.” Having been arrested in 2016, they’ve already served three years in jail for what human rights groups told the publication France24 were crimes of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Meanwhile, a Taiwan artist by the name of Shake has installed an inflatable “tank man” sculpture near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. The work recreates the famous photo of a man in a white shirt, who has never been officially identified, standing in front of a convoy of tanks, which has since become a symbol of peaceful resistance around the world. After the image was taken, the man was later pulled away from the scene by two men.

“As a Taiwanese I hope I can help China to also achieve democracy one day,” Shake told Reuters. “I think it is important to the Taiwanese people to continue discussing this topic — preventing people from forgetting this event and reminding the Taiwanese people that the regime in China is dangerous.”

Outside of mainland China, locales within Taiwan and Hong Kong are planning to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

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