It was a ritual: every June 4, for 33 years, the Catholic Church of Hong Kong had organized messes in memory of the victims of the repression after the 1989 protests in the square Tian’anmen in Beijing: around 10,000 dead. It’s over. There will be no Catholic service of commemoration this Saturday, June 4, in a city which nevertheless has nearly 500,000 Catholics. The organizers explain “not wanting to break the law”. They refer to the national security law that came into force two years ago in Hong Kong.
Last year, the Church nevertheless defied the authorities by organizing seven messes in seven different parishes. But she had suffered threats and intimidation, including banners unfurled in front of the parishes in question. Messages denouncing “cults that invite themselves into chaos” or showing the emblematic figure of zen cardinals, decked out with a devil with pitchforks. Also in 2021, the Church had also removed any direct reference to the words “lok sei”, often used in China in reference to Tian’anmen, because it means 6-4, in reference to the date of the repression, June 4, 6th month of the year. It was the swan song. This year, there will be nothing at all.
These messes were probably the last visible reference to Tian’anmen because everything is gradually being erased by the power of Beijing. On Chinese soil, it’s already been a long time. The subject is totally taboo. It no longer exists in history textbooks. In Hong Kong, until the national security law imposed by Beijing two years ago, it was different. The event was taught at school. An annual vigil was organized, a museum told this page of history. There is nothing left. The veil was banned.
The museum was forced to close its doors last year. Several universities in the city, which owned works, including paintings or sculptures in memory of the victims, have removed them in recent months. Emblematic case: that of the “Pillar of Shame”, a monumental sculpture removed shortly before last Christmas. In public libraries, books that evoke Tian’anmen are no longer available. And now, then, it’s also finished with the disorders. Beijing has succeeded in its undertaking: History is erased.
This abandonment of the messes is also the reflection of a complex relationship between the Catholic Church and the Chinese authorities. There are about 10 million Catholics in China, and for a long time there have been two Churches: an official dubbed by the Communist Party and another underground loyal to the Vatican. Four years ago, Beijing and the Holy See signed a compromise, relating in particular to the appointment of bishops. The Vatican is very keen on this.
Or this agreement expires. Its renewal is on the table. This is perhaps what explains the caution of the Catholic Church on Tian’anmen. And also the absence of condemnation from the Vatican after the brief arrest last month of Cardinal Zen, 90, now retired, a figure of freedom of thought in Hong Kong. He is expected to stand trial in September for aiding a foundation that supported those arrested during 2019 pro-democracy protests. Order from Beijing now reigns in Hong Kong.