Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: How long had you been in Beijing before the events of June 4th, 1989?
Mak Yin-ting: I went to Beijing to cover Sino-British affairs in relation to Hong Kong. I was among the first batch of Hong Kong reporters to be officially allowed in to cover news in mainland China. That was in 1985, when we were allowed to cover the National People’s Congress. In 1989 I was assigned specifically to the protests in April.
RHK: At that point, did you or your editors have any idea it would become such a historic event?
MYT: Of course not. I don’t think people there thought the demonstrations would turn into a massacre or such a large-scale protest. I think at the peak over a million people took to the streets. The first thing that really struck me was in April when protests started from the university area after a People’s Daily editorial on April 26th condemned the movement as a revolution. The students and other people involved were afraid that there would be a lot of trouble if the stance of the central government did not change, so the next day university students organized a march starting in Haidian District and I can only say that it is it was really a mountain people mountain sea (人山人海).
At some points, the police tried to stop them and they clashed before the police finally allowed them to march on. I followed them from the universities to the western part of Beijing and then down Chang’an Boulevard to the Great Hall of the People. It took all day but spirits were high. Their determination was so strong and the support of the people was very enthusiastic. It was very moving. From that time, we got the feeling that if both sides didn’t sit down and talk the result would not be good, but even then I never would have imagined that it would end the way it did. It became very worrying around the end of May when we heard that live ammunition was being dispatched to the front line.
RHK: How did the high spirits at that time affect you as a reporter? Could you feel yourself getting a bit swept up in it as well and was that a challenge to your objectivity as a reporter?
MYT: I wouldn’t say that I didn’t do a good job, but at some points I found that I wasn’t acting professionally in a way. I remember how supportive the people were. When the protesters were marching all day, the people came out to give them water and ice lollies. When they started singing their marching song, it was so moving that I sang along with them for two or three lines before realizing that was unprofessional and stopping. I had been in the industry for five years at that time and I knew I could only watch and report [that] seeing the support of the people was so moving.
RHK: You mentioned how toward the end of May you heard that bullets were being dispatched to security forces and you started fearing for the worst at that point. Did you feel the atmosphere among the protesters themselves also darken at some point?
MYT: I think the protesters’ emotions were going up and down. When you are supported by the people you feel quite encouraged. And when the movement simmered down they tried doing things that would attract the support of the media and the public in Beijing. When you face a huge authority, they have lots of resources to influence you; sometimes you get good news and then you say it seems that you can see the light [at the end] of the tunnel, but then things turn sour and the emotions of the people will also go down. But in all in all, you could see that the support of the public was going up.
I regard May as the turning point when it went from a student movement to a movement that involved all walks of life in Beijing and even outside of Beijing. That’s why, when people describe the 1989 movement, sometimes people will call it the student movement, and sometimes people call it a patriotic movement. When the public actively went to Tiananmen Square to protect the students, the nature of the movement turned from a student movement to a patriotic movement. Afterward, the support from the people was very high.
In May, the local students in Tiananmen Square went back to campus and then students from outside Beijing began to move in to take up their position. So the movement went on and then more and more people came to Beijing from different parts of China.
RHK: Where were you on the night of June 3rd when you first heard that they were firing on the students in and around Tiananmen Square?
MYT: I was in the Beijing Hotel. As a newspaper reporter, I had to write my story and send it back to Hong Kong first. I had been all around in the city and the countryside and my plan was to file the story and then go out again to Tiananmen Square. When I finished at around 10 pm, I went out on the balcony as usual and I could see uniformed officers moving in and searching everyone coming into the hotel. I thought that if I went down again and took photos I might not be able to bring any of the material back in. We had a full view of Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Boulevard, though, so I stayed there to watch what was happening until all the lights went out around 4 am.
RHK: How did your experience in Beijing in 1989 affect your personal outlook or your career plans?
MYT: Covering the protests and the whole movement in Beijing convinced me that I wanted to keep doing this work and that I don’t want reporters in Hong Kong to have to work like our counterparts in mainland China. The limitations imposed on journalists affect people. I remember we were protected by the people, the Beijing people, who just wanted us to report things to the world. They thought that mainland reporters will only follow the instructions of the government — they will not tell the truth to the world. They thought that the journalists there would not report the truth to the world and their voice cannot be heard.
That made me feel even stronger about maintaining the status quo of Hong Kong’s press freedom. That was the reason I started participating in the work of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which was the only trade union in Hong Kong. When I came back from studying abroad, I joined the Executive Committee of the HKJA and served for over 20 years, among which nine years I was the chair of the association. I hope very much that press freedom will remain the status quo. Of course, the situation now is much worse, but I think it is important for us to see what we can do to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong as much as possible.
Covering the protests and the whole movement in Beijing convinced me […] that I don’t want reporters in Hong Kong to have to work like our counterparts in mainland China… I remember we were protected by the Beijing people who just wanted us to report things to the world. They thought that mainland reporters will will only follow the instruction of the government — they will not tell the truth to the world…. their voice cannot be heard. That made me feel more stronger about maintaining the status quo of Hong Kong’s press freedom.
RHK: After 1989, June 4th vigils became an important annual political ritual in Hong Kong. Why do you think June 4th became so important to Hong Kong people and stayed that way for so many years?
MYT: It is important because the persistence of Hong Kong people tells the world that justice should be done. The truth should be told. We cannot tolerate a truth that has been buried. The Chinese government always denies that it was a patriotic movement and say that the Western world or the media is telling lies. Please show us the evidence. Don’t hide all the evidence and just use empty allegations. The People’s Liberation Army actually went to different hospitals on June 4th to search and to get gather information about the injured or the dead. They have the evidence but won’t tell the truth to the world.
RHK: Recently in Hong Kong, we’ve seen the removal and confiscation of the Pillar of Shame and the removal of books about June 4th from public libraries. For over three decades, Hong Kong has been the primary place where this memory is kept alive and passed on but now it looks like that’s not going to be possible any longer. Do you think that the government will succeed in extinguishing this memory in Hong Kong, too?
MYT: I agree with you that the June 4th commemoration will not be as massive as before in the near future, and the government is trying to eliminate the memory of the people by pulling books down. Of course, they will not explicitly say that you cannot talk about it, but the fact is fewer and fewer people will dare to talk about it. The government is trying very hard to eliminate the memory but I don’t think they will succeed in the near future. It is a struggle but we have to be optimistic. The seeds have been planted. The information has been out there online for such a long time. Unless they stop Hong Kong people from accessing information around the world or only let them access the information provided by the government, it will not be successful.
The Tiananmen generation is still in their 50s, 60s, or 70s and the younger generation has picked up the memories. So even if a regime would like to do so, it would take around three generations to successfully eliminate a collective memory. That means unless the government can ensure that from now on, for at least three generations, people can only access information provided by the government, I can not see how the government’s elimination of memory will be a success. We always say the fight against an authoritarian regime is a fight to remember. I hope very much and I believe that the memory will not be killed so easily.
RHK: There used to be space in Hong Kong to be both a democrat and a patriot. Figures like Szeto Wah and Albert Ho were even seen by Beijing as the acceptable face of the pro-democracy movement. But the national security crackdown has seemingly erased any middle ground and anything short of full-throated support for the government is seen as seditious. Is there any space left for the patriotic democrats of the Tiananmen generation?
MYT: I don’t think the movement itself was revolutionary. It’s nonsense that it was trying to topple the government. We still regard it as a patriotic movement. Some pro-establish figures say otherwise but that is what freedom means. Freedom means even though I don’t agree with you, I will safeguard your right to say so.
It’s perhaps an impossible hope that the authorities will think in the same way and wish to maintain the freedom and human rights of Hong Kong people. Some people may self-censor; some will try to protect themselves and use other means to remember; but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Different people will have their own way to keep the memory alive. In that sense, I’m not that pessimistic. I mean, at least in my generation, I do not think the elimination of this memory will be a success. But for the third or fourth generations, it’s very difficult to tell. We have to fight the war of keeping memory.
RHK: This week, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive rebuked a reporter who asked a question related to the 2019 protests, insisting the media call it the “black violence” instead. It was just the latest in an ongoing effort to rewrite the history of these events, which is especially bold considering how many of us witnessed them personally. When you see things like this, are you reminded of Beijing’s efforts to rewrite the events of June 4th, 1989?
MYT: Well, I think the phenomenon you describe was not just specific to 1989. Actually, the whole history of the People’s Republic of China is a history of molding how people think. So that’s why the propaganda department is so important. And when you talk about 1989, of course, it was the case.
Closer to the present day, the Covid-19 pandemic is another example. They will not allow people to relate it to Wuhan. To me, it is very natural for an authoritarian regime to do things like that. The Chief Executive is now trying to change the nature of the 2019 movement and always saying that it is like violence and all that, but I think that for people who experienced these events, they will not change their minds to the government’s line so easily.