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The unknown "Tank Man" hero who faced down a line of People's Liberation Army tanks in his shirtsleeves and holding a shopping bag in June 1989. A grieving woman pulling a tank out of a baby's body. The hastily packed suitcases of Hong Kongers packed with memories of home as they fled an ongoing crackdown in their city.

These and many more works of art are on display in Taipei through June 13 in a bid to warn the democratic island's residents of the dangers of forgetting -- specifically the threat to human rights and freedoms posed by authoritarian rule.

As the island is encircled by People’s Liberation Army forces on military exercises, artists are marking the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre with an exhibit that includes key moments in the pro-democracy movement in recent years as well as commemoration of those who died in the 1989 bloodshed.

The exhibit, titled "Preserving Memory: Life, Death,” brings together more than 30 works by 18 artists in wooden frames resembling household cabinets, including 3D-printed replicas of the “Pillar of Shame” massacre memorial sculpture, which has been seized by national security police in Hong Kong. 

A grieving woman pulls a tank out of a baby's body in a painting on show at the "Preserving Memory: Life, Death" exhibit in Taipei on May 23, 2024. (RFA/Hsia Hsiao-hwa)

Upstairs at the imposing blue-and-white memorial hall commemorating Taiwan's former authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek, with a candlelight vigil to be held in Democracy Boulevard outside the hall on June 4 this year, more than one third of the works on show are from Hong Kong artists who fled their city amid a crackdown on dissent in the wake of the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

Candlelight vigils were held for the victims of the June 4, 1989, massacre every year in Hong Kong for three decades, before they were banned in 2020 and their organizers jailed.


Tiananmen massacre eyewitness Wu Renhua told the launch event on Thursday that he hopes the exhibit will remind Taiwan's 23 million people, particularly the younger generation, of the dangers of Chinese Communist Party rule.

Speaking as People's Liberation Army warships and planes encircled the island on military exercises intended as a "serious punishment" for Taiwan's democratically elected President Lai Ching-te, Wu said Taiwan is currently under threat today because of the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian system.

Exiled Hong Kong artist Choi Chi-ho (right) and curator Abbey Li at the opening of the "Preserving Memory: Life, Death" exhibit in Taipei on May 23, 2024. (RFA/Hsia Hsiao-hwa.)

"Over the years, some political parties, some politicians, and some media in Taiwan have been trying to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party, saying that it's different now, and that China today has changed," Wu told the event. "This worries me greatly."

"I hope that through commemorative activities for June 4 and by telling the truth about the June 4 massacre, more Taiwanese, particularly the younger generation, will see the violent nature of the Chinese Communist Party for what it is," Wu said, calling for "a sense of crisis” to safeguard Taiwan's freedoms and its democratic system.

Exiled Hong Kong artist Choi Chi-ho, who exhibited his suitcase as an artwork, said he had packed in a huge hurry when the time came for him to leave Hong Kong, with only a couple of days to get himself ready.

"I just stuffed everything I could find ... anything I could find to represent my 20 years of life in Hong Kong, my experiences and memories, into that suitcase," Choi told RFA Mandarin, adding that he couldn’t bear to open it until he heard about the exhibit.

Organizers from Taiwan's New School for Democracy pose at the launch of the "Preserving Memory: Life, Death" exhibit in Taipei on May 23, 2024. RFA/Hsia Hsiao-hwa.

Among the items in the suitcase was the key to his old apartment.

“My house key,” Choi explained. “I thought maybe one day I’d go back, but eventually, it just wound up here. I’ll never be able to use it again.”

“My ex-boyfriend wrote me a farewell letter and gave me some of his clothes,” he said.

"When my mother found out I was leaving, she took out a Bible and wrote some words of blessing on it for me," he said. "When I opened it later, I saw she'd also put some family photos from my childhood in there."

Authoritarian control

Choi said the exhibit seeks to underline what can happen to a society once it comes under Beijing's control.

"Taiwan has also lived through a very authoritarian era," he said in a reference to the one-party rule of the Kuomintang that ended with the direct election of the island's president in 1996. 

"Only by understanding human rights violations in our own land, or in the territory next door, do we realize that freedom and democracy are hard-won, and that our predecessors paid a high price in blood, sweat and human life for them," he said.

Former Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei speaks at the launch of the "Preserving Memory: Life, Death" exhibit in Taipei on May 23, 2024. RFA/Hsia Hsiao-hwa.

Canada-based democracy activist Yang Ruohui said by video message that respect for human rights was the biggest difference between Taiwan and China under Communist Party rule.

"I would like to call on the people of Taiwan to pay attention to the human rights situation in China, and to help us build a Chinese community in diaspora that embraces human rights, freedom and democracy as a way of life, and demonstrates it to those in mainland China," he said.

Former Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei, who fled to Taiwan after being held for months by Chinese state security police for selling banned political books to customers in mainland China, said it's not enough just to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre every year.

"We must also reflect on why this happened in 1989," he told the launch event. "Was it because young people embraced Western democratic ideas ... during reforms and opening up, then demanded that the Chinese government itself reform and move towards a democratic transition?"

A former frontline protester from the 2019 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong choked up while addressing the launch party, and called on Hong Kongers and Taiwanese to work together to prevent authoritarianism from endangering democracy yet again.

The "Preserving Memory: Life, Death" exhibit runs on the second floor of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei through June 13.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA Mandarin.