Thirty years after crackdown, fasting is gaining traction to mark 4 June amid increasing censorship
For the past 29 years, Chen Wei has marked the anniversary of the bloody 4 June Tiananmen Square crackdown by fasting for 24 hours, consuming only water and thinking of the students who perished.
Chen, a former student organiser, started the tradition when she was in prison, soon after the protests ended, while serving 20 months in an 8 sq metre cell. It was a small, silent act of resistance. The guards did not pay attention to whether she ate or not.
Chen is one of many former protesters and activists who will be fasting on Tuesday, the 30th anniversary of the crushing of a nationwide pro-democracy movement, when tanks and soldiers cleared protesters by force, killing hundreds or perhaps thousands.
Its really a sacred day, said Chen, who led protests in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou as a university student. It is a day of complicated emotions for Chen, of guilt and grief.
They died to promote democracy in China and it seems what we have done in the past 20 or 30 years is insignificant. We failed to let their souls rest in peace, we failed to redress their deaths, she said.
Fasting is one of the only forms of remembrance left to people like Chen and her husband, also an activist, amid even tighter controls and censorship by Chinese authorities.
For years, both have been under virtual house arrest and heavy surveillance, with cameras in elevators and outside their building set up especially for them. On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, the couple were arrested and jailed for trying to host a public memorial.
Following the end of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, when protests took place in more than 300 cities across the country, thousands of students, workers, and residents were detained by police. Like Chen, those who spent time in prison would often fast on 4 June. After they were released, many continued the tradition on their own.
Now, a group of Chinese activists have called for a nationwide fast to remember Tiananmen.
Holding vigil, wearing black in mourning, these acts can be suppressed and restricted. What cannot be restricted is fasting, which is possible even if you are deprived of your freedom, said a statement, posted online this week by the human rights group China Change.
When 1.3 billion people come together to observe this moment, our nation will have gained new life, the statement said.
Before people fasted on their own. Now, we hope more people will join and turn this into a social movement and a tradition. Even though we are scattered we are united and together, said one of the organisers, based in China, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
Ahead of the anniversary, authorities appear to be blocking some virtual private networks (VPNs), used to get around Chinas Great Firewall, which restricts access to foreign sites. The popular video-streaming site Bilibili has disabled some of its comment functions and Baidu has barred the sharing of external links in its cloud service.
Chinese officials and state media do not mark the occasion. An English-language editorial in the state-run Global Times said the government has already dealt with 4 June and dropping the incident thereafter has been aimed at helping the country leave the shadow behind.
In the absence of any allowed commemoration, some say fasting is also about remembering a key part of the protests in Beijing, when students in Tiananmen Square began a hunger strike in May of 1989. Images of students fainting and being wheeled to hospitals gained widespread sympathy within China and abroad.
Fasting is a way to suffer. To reflect, so its appropriate for such an occasion, said Zhou Fengsuo, a former student leader in Beijing, who is now living in the US.
Other activists, who every year spend the day followed by public security, will spend the day fasting and watching their government minders enjoy long, lavish lunches.
Chen will spend the day at home in Zhengzhou with her husband. Police and security guards outside her apartment will make sure they do not try to leave the city or organise any gatherings. She has been told not to accept any interviews.
While she does not believe another broad student movement would be possible today, Chen thinks conditions are actually better for political change now than in 1989, when the economy was weak and communication networks were poor.
Thirty years on from the protests, more families feel comfortable talking about what happened to their children and despite far-reaching censorship, more people are aware of what happened, Chen says. A community of activists and civil society groups, though restricted, have had time to grow.
Chen said: I feel guilty, but I also hope this will be resolved. I hope one day this day will be Chinas human rights day. Everyone feels sadness but also a sense of motivation and courage. This day is very special and sacred.
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