An exhibition space commemorating the June 4, 1989, massacre of protesters in Beijing and other Chinese cities opened Friday in New York, highlighting how recent changes in China have rejuvenated its overseas dissident scene.
Long known for being riven by personality disputes and having little impact back in China, overseas activists now seem more united and more plugged into China than before.
That’s in part due to a recent influx of Chinese journalists, writers, artists, and businesspeople who have chosen to leave China’s increasingly restrictive climate. As James Areddy of the Wall Street Journal notes in an article today, New York has become a gravitational point for many critics and skeptics of the Xi Jinping government, fostering an underground scene of Chinese feminist standup comedy, and democracy “salons” where—like in 1989 in Beijing—ideas are floated for how to change China.
One of those spaces is the June 4th Memorial Exhibit in Manhattan. Located on the fourth floor of a small office building on Sixth Avenue, the space is relatively small but features an impressive display of flags, banners, and some historically significant artifacts from the protests, including a piece of calligraphy found on the square after the massacre that reads “Patriotism is Not a Crime,” a mimeograph machine used to spread speeches and information, and a blood-stained banner used to bind the wound of a victim.
For several weeks before the official opening, the space also hosted discussions among young people about China’s future course. This is the sort of dialogue between the generations that the museum hopes to foster, one of the 1989 student leaders, Wang Dan, told me.
Wang and many of the student leaders from 1989 have set up a non-governmental organization called Dialogue China that tries to foster this kind of discussion, especially between new arrivals from China and those like the student leaders, who have been living in exile for decades.
The recent “white paper” protests—where people in Beijing and some other cities held up blank pieces of paper to signify their desire to protest but also overwhelming government censorship—has also reinvigorated the exile scene. Some have recently arrived in New York and other cities. Others inside China have plugged into exile scenes through the use of VPN software that can bypass the Chinese government’s firewall that blocks out undesirable websites.
The effect seems to be a more cohesive, united exile movement.
Dialogue China, for example, features a who’s who of the 1989 student movement in its leadership, including Wang, Wang Juntao, Hu Ping, Su Xiaokang, Wu’erkaixi, and Zhang Boli. They are supplemented by some participants of recent protests in Hong Kong, including Joshua Wong.
The group spearheaded the new memorial. Its head, David Yu, said they hoped to build out the exhibition space into a full-fledged museum over the coming years.
One key impetus was the closure of the June 4 Museum in Hong Kong in 2021. That was the only institution commemorating the massacre.