10/02/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Looking at Hong Kong from My Personal Memories of Tiananmen Square

Peter Charlesworth via Getty Images

I have been shutting down all the links from friends of internet reports and photos about the Hong Kong protests, but I still awaken in the middle of the night. The sound of shooting still lingers in my ears from the summer of 1989.

I was 10 years old, and we lived not far from Tiananmen Square. In the beginning, we didn't know what happened; probably we still don't know. It was the only time I saw tanks in the center of the city that were not on parade. The local people opposed them and very soon, there were charred soldiers' corpses hanging from the overpasses.

Then we began to hear shooting from outside our classroom. We didn't know where the sound came from, whether the shots were being fired in the air or at people. But we heard it every day. Then, suddenly, we were given a week's vacation. As children, we were all happy to have time off from school. Many adults were happy, too. They seemed to sense that a new China was coming, even though they weren't sure what it was.

My uncle was a doctor in one of the biggest military hospitals in Beijing. Before the violence, they had teams working 24-hour shifts at Tiananmen Square to attend the students in case they collapsed from dehydration.

Then, it was still very much like Hong Kong is now. The protesters are happily waiting for their requests to be accepted, and their Hong Kong truly to be led by citizens of Hong Kong. They don't need Beijing's backward centralized government. News reports document how peaceful and generous the protesters are, how civilized they are, even gathering the recycling, and with students still doing their homework. Does this mean that a hundred years of being a Western colony has domesticated them? The innocent young faces in the news photos seem so sincere and steadfast, but I wonder how much they understand the meaning of words like democracy and centralization?

When I was 20 at university, my professors who had been at Tiananmen Square when they were my age told me that they came to enjoy the free food, and for the fun of joining the big event. But I also heard from all those I knew who went through that night that the most horrible thing was when they finally made it home and found so much blood under their shoes.


But they would never dare mention that it was army doing the killing, and we never got to see any bloody pictures from it. I cannot forget the fear in their eyes, and the silence the whole society observed after that. Chinese have shut their mouths so often, again and again, from the Rectification Movement to the Cultural Revolution, to Tiananmen Square that it makes me wonder if there is any kind of killing over which they would not remain silent.

In Deng Xiaoping's speech soon after Tiananmen, he said:

This storm was bound to come sooner or later. This is determined by the major international climate and China's own minor climate. It was bound to happen and is independent of man's will. It was just a matter of time and scale. It is more to our advantage that this happened today. What is most advantageous to us is that we have a large group of veteran comrades who are still alive. They have weathered many storms and they know what is at stake.

After 15 years of decolonization, the students of Hong Kong are challenging a Communist Party that has weathered many storms and knows what is at stake. After 1989, it quickly moved to restrict things even more severely than before. The whole country had even less freedom for another ten years -- until the growth of the internet offered an alternative way to disseminate information. We are no longer getting our news only from state media anymore, even though the government's ability to restrict the internet rapidly advances.

A terrible irony is that, seen in the relatively short term of 25 years, the Tiananmen Square event didn't seem to help the cause of China's progress to democracy, but seems to have led the government to take China to an opposite extreme. When Western media and governments celebrate with Chinese democrats, it also reminds the central government not to relax its grip--which in fact it has never done since 1989.

It is also a fact that before 1997, half million people left Hong Kong. And for thirty years before that since the violent riots of 1967, there were no further protests against the British government's colonial rule. Why? No one tolerates corrupt government forever. Corruption will lead the Communist Party to die like the Qing dynasty before it.


Another irony is that Hong Kong exists because the Qing ceded it to Britain in the first place, and it is precisely because Mainland China has had such a closed system that an autonomous Hong Kong was a financial necessity. It was as though corrupt Communist Party officials required in Hong Kong the very rule of law they forbade in China so that its economic benefits could be captured. And Hong Kong reaped its own advantages at the cost of losing the country to which it belonged.

In the end, there will be two possible outcomes.

First, as the Hong Kongese hope, the central government may concede their wishes. Hong Kong would then be more like an independent country. But for a country the size of Hong Kong, is there such a thing as independence? Or are such countries doomed to be the dependents of one major power or another?

In either case, Singapore is bound to be quite happy with all the advantages it reaps from the Hong Kong protest. And the Hong Kong protest could be imitated in different ways and for different aims in other places in China, eventually leading to the Communist Party's loss of power--of course the central government will try every means at its disposal to stop this.

A second possibility is that Hong Kong protestors will be compelled to give in if the region is to function at all, and the cycle of post-1989 China will repeat itself with more restrictions and less freedom.

The American Revolution led to the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787. That's how modern democracy started, but China has over 2000 years of centralization, which has become ever more problematic.

When I was in my 20s, along with some friends, we started the first independent film festival in China, founding The Practice Society as an organization for independent film makers and young people who were interested in film. Most of the organizers were students. But the authorities regarded film as a sensitive propaganda tool, and soon the government shut us down. As one of the founders, I fully expected officials to come to my university and question me; some of my colleagues were expelled because of it. I knew how it felt.

I do not want it to happen all over again in China. And I do not want to wake up after midnight recalling the shooting sounds a 10 years old girl once heard from her classroom. To the people of Hong Kong! The same blood flows in our veins. I wish you all the best. May you be prudent and take care!

Jia (Chinese: 嘉; Pinyin: Jiā) is an artist from Beijing who works in Berlin. While still a university student, she became vice president of The Practice Society, China’s first independent film movement. She has also worked as an architect, editor, and curator.