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Tiananmen museum seeks funds to preserve crackdown relics online

Looming Chinese national security law for Hong Kong spurs crowdfunding drive

The June 4th Museum in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, is the only permanent exhibition in the People's Republic of China that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)  

HONG KONG -- The operators of the world's only museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown have begun a global crowdfunding drive to take their collection online, prodded by the looming national security law Beijing plans to impose in Hong Kong.

"We have to preserve it, because we have an uncertain future," said Lee Cheuk-yan, chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China and a former legislator, at a news briefing on Saturday. "We don't know what will happen to this museum after the national security law is promulgated. This is also risk control, so what we have now could be preserved."

Even though the exact wording of the security law has not been made public, the organization believes it could be targeted as discussion of the Tiananmen crackdown is banned in mainland China. Even images of candles on Chinese social media platforms were censored on June 4.

The group, established in May 1989, has hosted an annual candlelight vigil to remember the events of June 4 in Hong Kong's Victoria Park over the last 31 years.

The group has now made a crowdfunding appeal on Kickstarter with an aim of raising 1.5 million Hong Kong dollars ($193,000) to set up "June 4th Museum of Memory and Human Rights" online to "defend the truth."

So far, the project has raised close to HK$160,000 from 197 donors in France, Ireland, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, Japan, Macao, Hong Kong and China.

Lee Cheuk-yan, right, chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, called for donations to preserve items from the Tiananmen crackdown. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

If all goes according to plan, the online museum will be launched in September next year. The website will exhibit documents and relics of the monthslong protest and subsequent crackdown, such as helmets and T-shirts worn and used by protesters.

"I believe it is important to connect internationally," said Lee, given China's global influence and dominance.

The group has already been squeezed financially, as this year's vigil was banned by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government. The vigil is its main source of income as it relies on donations from citizens to keep going. Even though the event was eventually still held in Victoria Park and elsewhere in the territory on the evening of June 4 despite the ban, attendance was still far lower than in previous years.

Lee said they were only able to raise about HK$800,000 this year, compared with HK$2.75 million last year when 180,000 people, as estimated by organizers, attended the vigil. The group needs HK$1.7 million to cover expenses for year-round activities and the maintenance of the museum, as it is open to the public for free.

"We rely only on the donations from the people," Mak Hoi-wah, chair of the management committee of the June 4th Museum, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Saturday.

Local companies, most of which typically have some form of business dealings with counterparts on mainland China, have never contributed as they fear being regarded as hostile by Beijing. "No one dares to do so," said Mak.

Not only does it have financial problems, the group has also repeatedly faced harassment and intimidation over its activities. The first permanent museum, which opened in Tsim Sha Tsui in the downtown Kowloon district in April 2014 backed by donations of HK$6 million, had to close down in July 2016, after the owner of the building initiated a lawsuit against the group claiming that the space could not be used as a museum.

Lee said then that the group suspected that the attack was politically motivated as the litigant seemed to enjoy abundant financial support, although this was never proven.

After finding a temporary location in April 2017, the group finally settled into the current premises in Mong Kok and reopened two years later. The relaunch was delayed by a few days, however, because the lock for the main gate went missing and electrics in the unit failed after a vandal threw salt water on the system.

"Even without the national security law, our June 4th Museum has undergone a lot of harassment from some people who don't agree with us," said Lee.

Now, with its plan to go online, the group faces a new worry: cybersecurity. Its solution is to employ an open source system while refraining from disclosing where the servers hosting the museum will be based.

"Source code will be made available so a lot of people could come in and check to ensure that it's secure," said Chow Hang-tung, vice-chair of the alliance. The idea is that a large number of participants will then be able to keep an eye on the security of the website. 

"Because they have the whole cyber army and we are only one organization, I don't think one person could withstand," she said, referring to substantial cyber muscles that Beijing is able to flex. "If we can enlist help from the public or global netizens, we could better maintain this project," she said.

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