The only commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to take place on Chinese soil — in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park — was risky for any mainland Chinese activist to attend. But one could not stay away.
He thought about it carefully, knowing it could get him into more trouble. He is already under intense pressure from the authorities for social media posts opposing the Chinese Communist Party.
But he went ahead and bought the ticket to Hong Kong.
At Tuesday’s candlelight vigil to remember those killed in the Chinese military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989, Cai stood solemnly as tens of thousands of participants fell silent and funeral music played in tribute to the dead. The smell of candles drifted through the night, and clouds hung low over the glittering skyline.
“I think the students were the driving force to move China forward,” Cai said. “And then they faced a cruel crackdown.”
Cai, who is in his 50s, requested that his full name and other identifying details not be published to shield him from repercussions from Chinese authorities for talking to foreign media about the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which is forbidden in China.
At the vigil, he took photos and video that he rapidly uploaded to WeChat, repeatedly creating new accounts as his others were deleted by Chinese censors.
Hong Kong, a former British colony handed back to China in 1997, enjoys limited democratic freedoms. Apart from the annual candlelight commemoration, it has a museum dedicated to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations — the first mass movement to challenge the Communist Party in Beijing and rally for political freedoms such as free speech, elections and the right to protest.
Chinese authorities contend that the army’s killings of protesters — including students, workers and Beijing residents — was the right thing to do. Since then, authorities have doubled down on political control and suppression of dissent, particularly in recent years under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
Cai said he was a model citizen in his community until he learned about the 1989 massacre via a Hong Kong chat group in 2016. That’s when his trouble started. He posted video and photographs of the crackdown on about 20 WeChat groups, China’s equivalent to WhatsApp, believing “that everyone has a right to know the truth.”
Within hours, his phone started ringing. Security officials, village officials and the head of local police called him demanding he immediately report to the local police station.
“It brought huge trouble into my life,” he said. “The Public Security Bureau officers came to my house and started threatening me.”
Cai’s story shows how authorities keep today’s pro-democracy activists isolated and powerless, preventing them from building a following.
The most determined activists may face arrest, detention, forced confessions and prison time.
After being summoned to the local police station in 2016, Cai was terrified. He deleted his chat history. When he reported at the station, officials shouted questions.
“The police said, ‘You should not post that information,’” he said. “They didn’t specify exactly what information, but as a Chinese person I knew they meant posts that could damage the Communist Party.”
They warned him that he risked ruining his life and getting his family in trouble too. They said his children could be barred from graduation or from finding decent jobs.
One senior police officer lectured him for three hours, repeating that what he was doing was wrong, that he had to stop, that he was powerless to challenge the authorities.
“My soul was trembling,” Cai said. “It made me feel really anxious about my family. And at that point I realized you can’t challenge the authorities because confronting the party you are nothing. You are powerless.
“But I am really determined. Once I decide to do something, I will not back down. I will continue to do what is right.”
The police wanted him to sign a confession and guarantee he wouldn’t discuss the crackdown again.
“Of course I did it,” he said. “I signed the confession. But I only kept my promise on paper. I will keep doing what I do.”
Cai continues to post criticism of the Communist Party on WeChat. The authorities take one group down. He starts up another. These days, his groups have shrunk to fewer than 100 people each. Like the police, his friends tell him he is too small and powerless to resist the authorities, but he ignores them.
Every month a Public Security Officer comes to his home. Some shout at him and threaten him. Some take pictures of his home and the photographs on his walls.
Although his audience is minuscule, he traveled to Hong Kong not just to pay homage to the victims of the massacre, but also to send photos and video to friends and family in mainland China, where there is almost no access to information about the crackdown.
“I will use my individual action at Victoria Park to tell the truth to all my friends, family and relatives because we should not forget this history,” he said.
Other members of the crowd who flooded into Victoria Park on Tuesday evening spoke of the importance of memory and honoring those who died. Some wore yellow T-shirts bearing one word: Brave.
Kailung Tsui, 30, a graduate student, has been coming every year since he was a high school student.
“It’s been an event and a tragedy that’s been very near and dear to my heart. I always care about social justice,” he said. “I am very passionate about coming here and paying my respects. I do value the fact that a large crowd turned out and sent a clear message to the authorities that despite your economic success, we cannot forget those who died.”
Kim Fong, a clerical worker who came with her son, felt anger that Chinese authorities continue to insist the killings were right.
“The government should not have used force against them to make them die,” she said. “They were so young and innocent. I feel sad — very, very unhappy.”
At the back of Cai’s mind is a nagging fear about the consequences he could face on his return to China for attending the vigil.
He believes that Chinese government surveillance and control are now so tough that there is no hope for any mass pro-democracy movement in the foreseeable future.
“I think that it’s very difficult to overthrow this regime because the Chinese economy is so big, it’s hard to see it could ever end,” he said.