HONG KONG - The latest history textbooks here contain something new about China's recent past. For the first time, there is at least a reference to the events that occurred 15 years ago today, when the People's Liberation Army carried out a violent, bloody crackdown against thousands of protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square demonstrating in favor of greater democracy.
But the textbook versions of that pivotal day in Chinese history are brief and make no mention that soldiers killed hundreds of the protesters. According to one of the textbooks, the lesson of June 4 is a positive one about China's place on the world stage.
"In June 1989, the June 4 incident erupted within China," the high school history textbook reports, without describing the incident itself. "China was then isolated by the international community. [China] did not adopt the attitude of enmity, instead quietly waiting for the time to come to improve relationships with foreign countries. In 1996, most countries normalized their relationships with China and China assumed its internationally important role again."
Now, with Beijing moving to limit democracy here, Hong Kong's pro-democracy forces are trying to keep alive the memory of the events in Tiananmen Square and the cause the slain students represented. The obstacles those forces are facing, including self-censorship and an unsympathetic Hong Kong leadership, are symbolic of Beijing's relentless efforts to control the history of that day and the larger struggle for democratic rights.
"They want to change and rewrite history," said Hong Kong legislator Cheung Man-kwong, head of Hong Kong's Professional Teachers' Union, who recently urged all Hong Kong teachers to teach a fuller lesson about June 4 to their students. "If the textbook is not true, if the teacher is afraid to speak the truth, then we have no hope for the future of Hong Kong."
Much remains unknown
"Six-four," like "9/11" for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, is the chronological shorthand by which most Chinese refer to that day, but many in mainland China still have little idea of what exactly happened.
Because of tight state control over the press and schools, only a small minority know that hundreds of protesters were killed by machine-gun fire or under tank treads as the army rolled along the Avenue of Eternal Peace toward the square.
The Chinese public does know that leaders of the student protests were jailed for crimes against the state. The public knows the government's story of June 4: a parable of bringing order to chaos, of wisely restoring social stability with "resolute measures" so that China could be allowed to prosper.
Some Chinese believe this parable; some younger Chinese do not know enough to care. With the government's dual strategy of tough political repression and freewheeling economic reforms, many have simply chosen the safer route to a better quality of life.
Prominent individuals who seek an official reassessment and reckoning of June 4 are viewed as threats and detained or closely watched, barred from talking to journalists.
This year, that list included the mothers of some of those who died that day, as well as Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who exposed the government's cover-up of the spread of SARS last year.
The story of June 4 unfolded differently in Hong Kong, which remained a British colony until China peacefully regained control in 1997.
Residents here watched the events in Tiananmen Square on live television just as people did around the world. More than a million Hong Kong residents protested in the streets after the killings, and activists have staged vigils annually on June 4, as they plan to do again tonight.
But some here worry that until the day comes that Beijing revisits its judgment of the Tiananmen protests, democratic rights in Hong Kong, too, might be doomed - not by tanks and guns but by the hammer of intimidation and the lure of economic rewards.
"June 4 is very symbolic in Hong Kong in the sense that the reversal of the verdict of June 4 would mean that it opens the door for political reform in China," said Joseph Cheng, a Hong Kong political scientist and ally of the democracy movement. "Most people appreciate that unless we have democracy in China, it will be difficult for us to have genuine democracy in Hong Kong."
The textbooks, issued for the coming school year, are the latest example of the inherent tension between Hong Kong's guarantees of civil liberties and a central government that doesn't tolerate such freedoms in the rest of the country.
Though the promise of democratic elections is written into Hong Kong's governing Basic Law, Beijing announced two months ago that it would not permit Hong Kong citizens to elect their chief executive in 2007 or directly elect a majority of their legislature in 2008.