TIME North Korea

20 Years After His Death, Kim Il Sung Still Casts a Powerful Spell Over North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang at midnight on July 8, 2014.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang at midnight on July 8, 2014. KCNA/Reuters

His look and persona are consciously imitated by his grandson, Kim Jong Un

When Kim Il Sung’s heart stopped beating exactly 20 years ago — on July 8, 1994 — the propagandists didn’t let the mere fact of his death get in the way. The 82-year-old founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was revered like a god in life — and after it.

Two decades later, mythmaking is as important as ever for Kim’s grandson, dictator Kim Jong Un, who has just led the official memorial to the Great Leader.

North Korean propaganda casts the Kims as protectors of a country under siege. School children learn that Kim Il Sung was an exceptional warrior who, while camping at the base of Mount Paektu with his comrades, defeated a force of Japanese colonialists. He later repelled the imperialist Americans in the 1950–53 Korean War.

According to official history, his heir, Kim Jong Il, was born at the base of the same scared mountain, and the birth heralded by a rainbow. According to North Korean hagiography, Kim Jong Il grew up to become a master tactician, writer and filmmaker. Legend has it he shot 11 holes-in-one in his first ever round of golf.

Kim Il Sung’s North Korea was never the socialist paradise portrayed on posters, but through the 1960s it was at least a functioning, if brutal and repressive, state. The collapse of the Soviet Union and disastrous agricultural policies changed that. In the 1990s, while successor Kim Jong Il practiced his soon-to-be-legendary swing, North Koreans starved.

Understandably, young Kim Jong Un prefers to bask in his grandfather’s, rather than his father’s, glow. South Korean analysts believe the young leader consciously emulates his grandfather’s look and public persona. Whereas his father avoided the public, Kim Jong Un, like his grandfather, is often photographed among, even touching, his subjects.

Channeling his granddad reinforces Kim Jong Un’s link to a not-so-distant revolutionary past. Since coming to power in 2011, he has promised to push ahead with the twin development of his country’s economy and nuclear-weapons program. He has made good on the second part, conducting the country’s third nuke test, while keeping up the violent rhetoric and threatening, among other things, to rain fire on the U.S. “Break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like, ” he once urged his soldiers, according to state media reports.

An actual conflict would almost certainly cost him his kingdom. But young Kim knows that for North Korea to survive he must convince his people that the enemy is at the gate — and that he, alone, can stop them. Grandad would have approved.

TIME China

China Bans Ramadan Fasting for Officials, Students in Restive Northwest

Ethnic Uighur men walk outside a mosque in Kashgar
Ethnic Uighur men walk outside a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, on Aug. 3, 2011. Carlos Barria—Reuters

Xinjiang's ethnic Uighur Muslims have been subject to an "anti-terrorism" crackdown after a spate of deadly attacks

Several government departments in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region have banned students and civil servants from fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Statements posted on school and government websites said the sure-to-be-unpopular policy was aimed at protecting students and stopping government offices from being used to promote religion, reports the Associated Press.

This is not the first instance of Chinese officials trying to curtail religious freedom among Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighur Muslims, but it comes at a particularly delicate time. A series of brutal attacks by what China says are religious extremists has spurred a year-long anti-terrorism crackdown in Xinjiang, including mass arrests and trials, cash awards for information and random searches.

Critics counter that the chief concern is not links to global terrorism, but widespread dissatisfaction with Chinese rule. A Muslim people that take their cultural and linguistic cues from Central Asia, Xinjiang’s Uighurs say they have been overwhelmed by an influx of migrants from the Han heartland to the east. They also complain of discrimination in the job market, limits on free expression and restriction on their right to pray, dress — and now, fast — as they so choose.


TIME East Asia

The Chinese President’s Visit to Seoul Says Much About Shifting Alliances

China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are welcomed upon arrival at Seoul Air Base on July 3, 2014 Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

The two-day trip is the first time a Chinese leader has chosen to visit South Korea before calling on the North

South Korea is a good neighbor. North Korea, not so much. That’s the message China sent this week as President Xi Jinping stopped by Seoul for a two-day visit. It is the first time a Chinese leader chose to visit South Korea before meeting with the Kim clan first — a deliberate slight to North Korea and a sign of shifting alliances across Asia’s northeast.

South Korea and China are not natural allies. China backed the North in the 1950–53 war that split the Korean Peninsula. Since then, Beijing has been North Korea’s greatest ally, serving as patron and protector to Pyongyang — a closeness Mao Zedong once likened to “lips and teeth.”

But the bonds of authoritarian brotherhood have frayed of late. Beijing is rather tired of the North’s nuclear theatrics and increasing unwillingness to prop up its sluggish economy. The North’s bold young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has yet to meet with Beijing’s top brass. As news of Xi’s Seoul trip broke, he was busy lobbing rockets into the sea.

Shared frustration with the North has given democratic South Korea and authoritarian China some common ground. They have since discovered they share much else, including a thriving trading partnership and an old foe: Japan. Amid ongoing territorial disputes, the legacy of Japan’s 20th century imperial expansion and the country’s wartime record have become a focal point for East Asia, particularly Seoul and Beijing. They recently collaborated on a museum that pays tribute to Korean man who, in 1909, assassinated a Japanese colonial official.

Not wanting to be outmaneuvered, Tokyo has made a quiet overture to Pyongyang. Sitting within range of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and an ally of the U.S., Japan is hardly a North Korea fan. But, on July 3 as Xi flew to Seoul, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would lift some economic sanctions on North Korea in return for its pledge to investigate the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese and North Korean diplomats have already met in Beijing.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s People Are Left Wondering How Long They Will Have to Wait for Genuine Democracy

Civil Human Rights Front Gather For July 1st Marches
Protesters hold banners and flags as they march during the annual pro-democracy protest on July 1, 2014 in Hong Kong. Anthony Kwan—Getty Images

The answer, if Beijing has its way, is a very long time indeed

Two and a half years ago, at a polling station in Taipei, I met a man from Hong Kong. It was the final day of what had been a hard-fought race between Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang, which wanted closer ties with the People’s Republic of China, and the more independence-minded opposition. What did the man from Hong Kong think?

He said he was not there to protest or politick; he was interested in the process itself. He flew in on his own dime to bear witness to democracy being exercised, and to take notes. To him, Taiwan represented the possibility of full democracy in Greater China. Hong Kong would get its chance, he said, and it would be ready. It was only a matter of time.

It has now been 17 years since the Union Jack was lowered over Hong Kong and this former colony returned to Chinese sovereignty. Under a political conceit known as “one country, two systems,” the city was told that its day-to-day way of life — common law, unfettered communications and all the rest — would remain unchanged for 50 years. But on matters of state, such as security and foreign policy, Hong Kong would be beholden to Beijing.

The forced marriage of Asia’s Manhattan and a highly repressive, one-party nation has always been an awkward one. Hong Kongers did not choose it. But in Beijing’s “two systems” provision, many of them were lulled into thinking that Hong Kong and China were to enjoy a sort of parity; to them, the emphasis on the territory’s new designation as China’s “Special Administrative Region” fell very much on the first word.

Beijing has never seen it that way. To the grandees of the Chinese Communist Party, the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 righted a historical humiliation suffered at the hands of British opium merchants, and the autonomy Beijing was prepared to grant Hong Kong was a civic autonomy only. It certainly didn’t amount to the de facto independence that many Hong Kongers still yearn for.

Beijing has made its position consistently clear — most recently in a white paper on its relationship to Hong Kong, in which it emphasized its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory, and in an ill-timed editorial in the state press exhorting Hong Kongers to show more patriotism.

“It’s like they own us,” says Fion Leung, 27, who took part in a massive pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on July 1, timed to coincide with the anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty. “It’s like Beijing owns us now and they never asked us — Britain or China, nobody asked us anything.”

The hundreds of thousands who marched on July 1 — some are calling it Hong Kong’s biggest political protest in a decade — are left wondering just how long they will have to wait before somebody asks them how they would like to shape their city’s future. They are frustrated with a lot of things, from land-use policy, and a border with mainland China they regard as far too porous, to freedom of the press, appalling income inequality and a lack of social mobility — the latter an especially distressing development for a people raised on entrepreneurship and the examples of the city’s rags-to-riches billionaires.

Most of all, these politically sophisticated and well-educated citizens are outraged that they still have to agitate for these issues to be addressed, instead of being allowed to resolve them through a genuinely democratic legislature and through a leader who has a popular mandate. Nearly 800,000 Hong Kongers vented their constitutional frustrations in a recent informal, civil-society backed poll on how the city’s top official, known as the chief executive, should be elected. (The post is currently filled by a 1,200-strong electoral college of mostly pro-Beijing voters.) Local authorities refused to recognize the results. China’s state-backed press dismissed it as a farce.

The July 1 protest was meanwhile largely peaceful, though it ended with the arrest of several hundred people, mostly students, who occupied parts of the city’s financial district overnight. The Hong Kong government struck a cautious response, telling media that it respected people’s right to protest, but holding firm against the idea of allowing the public to nominate chief-executive candidates in 2017 — a key demand of many demonstrators but a red line for Beijing.

Across the border, nightly newscasts played up the small, pro-China celebrations taking place on the same anniversary but chose not to mention the massive street protests. On much of the country’s social media and search engines, the term July 1 was blocked. The Hong Kongers who hoped that the city’s freewheeling ways would, after 1997, light the way for a more tolerant and open China have been taken by surprise by a Communist Party more determined than ever to control every tweet, post and program that mainlanders see. The believers in “one country, two systems” never took into account Beijing’s ability to game the system. Both systems.

TIME Aviation

It Sounds So Last Century, but Cabin Crew Are Still Hassled by Sex Pests

Getty Images

From Coffee, Tea or Me? to The Swinging Stewardesses to the Singapore Girl. For years, books, movies and marketing campaigns have sold us the story that flight attendants are sexy girls who serve, not working men and women. Years of organizing and activism has helped alter this perception and has dramatically improved working conditions in many parts of the world. But decades after Continental promised to “move our tails for you,” there are those who still feel free to return an attendant’s smile with a wink and a leer — or even a casual grope.

Thankfully, legislation is slowly changing that. Last week, Hong Kong became the latest jurisdiction to take action on the issue after officials proposed an amendment to the territory’s sexual-harassment laws that would make sexual harassment of service providers illegal, even if it happens outside the territory. Under the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill 2014, airborne sex pests would face civil action in Hong Kong courts. “Some people think they can run away from their actions — well, maybe they can’t run away anymore,” says Dora Lai, who heads the flight attendants’ union for local flag carrier Cathay Pacific. It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when the airline used to market itself with a nudge-nudge play on its code: “Try CX. You’ll like it.”

Though all this may sound like an improbable 1960s throwback, in-flight harassment is an enduring, industry-wide problem. Global stats are hard to come by because such behavior often goes unreported, or may be logged as an in-flight “incident.” But veteran flight attendants with international experience say it is a semiregular occurrence and an unfortunate fact of the job. The new rules in Hong Kong, for instance, follow a survey by Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunity Commission, which found that 27% of Hong Kong flight attendants reported being sexually harassed in the past year.

Statutory protection is a step in the right direction, but is still limited in scope. In drafting their proposal, Hong Kong officials looked to existing laws in Canada, New Zealand and Australia — a small slice of the travel pie. Some markets still lack harassment laws, many the will to enforce them. And it is notoriously tough to pursue claims against someone who may live and work elsewhere.

Part of the problem is that in-flight offenders are emboldened by a perception that they will not be called out. Airlines are certainly not the only place where this happens — creeps and criminals are universal — but there is something about flying that seems to bring it out, says Kathleen M. Barry, author of Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. “There has always been that sense that there is something distinctive about being on an airplane, it is a space apart, away from your family, removed from normal constraints of a service relationship.”

Airline marketing has not helped. In 1974’s Sex Objects in the Sky: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion, Paula Kane observed a link between the rise of sexy ad campaigns (“Fly me”), salacious depictions of stewardesses and real-life, one-the-job harassment. Her businessmen customers felt entitled to a “pinch or a pat.” Some still do.

Today, few would venture to grab a bank teller’s breast, or to casually show a shop assistant or receptionist part of their anatomy without expecting consequences. But both still happen in-flight, cabin crew say. One Chinese employee for a German airline told me in an email how the mere act of pouring a beverage — a humdrum part of the job — prompted one passenger to joke about ejaculating on her. (Fearing repercussions at work, she asked to withhold her name.)

Flight attendants have led the charge to change the industry. Bolstered by the civil rights movement and feminist activism, workers at U.S.-based airlines successfully campaigned for an end to things like age and weight limits and the requirement that stewardesses stay single. They also fought for better pay and benefits. In doing so, they helped changed the perception that working on an aircraft is somehow not real work at all.

Current conditions vary widely across regions and carriers. The International Transport Workers’ Federation last year called out the United Arab Emirates and Qatar for “flagrant abuses” of aviation-workers’ rights (including restrictions on marriage and pregnancy). Hong Kong–headquartered Cathay Pacific has a strong and vocal union, but flight attendants in mainland China cannot organize. Major Chinese airlines still have height and age requirements. At a 2011 recruitment pageant, prospective hires had to walk a runway in swimsuits and were evaluated on the shape of their legs.

Of course, it is not really about what recruits wear, or how they look, but about power. Flight attendants could wear potato sacks and still get hassled. Stopping would-be offenders means showing passengers and staff alike that abuse will not be tolerated, says Heather Poole, an industry veteran and the author of the bestseller Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. “There’s a reason foreign carriers like to keep their flight attendants young,” she says. In her experience, young people, who often have less job security, may be hesitant to speak up.

When, as a rookie, she was groped by a passenger in first class, she fled to the galley and did not report it. “I had just started flying, and I didn’t want to lose my job by causing a problem with an important passenger,” she recalled in an email. “I still don’t [know] who I’d go to for something like that. The union? Human resources? A 1-800 number?”

For Hong Kong–based crew, at least, the new rules may provide some help. And at least the issue is being discussed. But tackling the problem globally will require all jurisdictions, and airlines, to step up. Not to mention passengers. “I’d suggest that any person with a propensity to act out in this manner consider traveling as if their mother is sitting next to them,” Poole says. “An 18-year-old new hire may handle a situation differently than a flight attendant with 10 years’ seniority and a black belt in Taekwondo.”

Creeps: consider yourself warned.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Holds an Unofficial Vote, and Beijing Is Definitely Not Amused

A volunteer, center, handles a voter's ID card at a polling station in Hong Kong on June 22, 2014. Hong Kong citizens cast their ballots in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform, as booths opened across the territory in a poll that has enraged Beijing and drawn more than 690,000 votes since it opened online Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 700,000 Hong Kongers have voted so far in a civil-society-backed poll on electoral change that Beijing dismisses as "an illegal farce"

More than 690,000 Hong Kong people voted this weekend. There were no candidates, platforms or promises. Local authorities will not recognize the results. Beijing dismissed it as a farce. And yet they voted still — in a de facto referendum on democratic reform, conducted on Chinese territory.

More votes will come. The weekend was merely the start of an informal, civil-society-backed exercise designed to gauge support for electoral change. Until June 30, Hong Kong people can vote, in person or online, on three possible ways to elect the city’s leader, known the Chief Executive, who is currently chosen by a 1,200-member electoral college dominated by establishment conservatives. All three proposals give the public the right to nominate candidates. But Beijing and the Hong Kong government insist that this would go against Hong Kong’s miniconstitution — the Basic Law — which says candidates for the 2017 direct election have to be vetted by a nomination committee. They also have to “love China,” Beijing says.

A former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong operates semiautonomously, enjoying a range of rights but beholden, in many ways, to Beijing. It is governed under a model known as “one country, two systems.” But critics of the arrangement worry that the two systems — Hong Kong’s freebooting capitalism, governed by common law, and China’s one-party state-run version — are slowly merging into one, tilting the balance in Beijing’s favor.

It’s a question that consumes the territory, dividing it between those who welcome China’s influence (or who say that there is no practical choice other than to accept it) and others who vehemently oppose it. The resulting is a deeply polarized territory. Most people are somewhere in-between, seeing some level of integration as inevitable, but willing to fight to protect the freedoms they hold dear — the right to assemble, an independent judiciary, free speech and a relatively free media.

Divisions exist not only among Hong Kongers but also between Hong Kong and the mainland, from which many in Hong Kong consider themselves culturally distinct. In 2012, plans to introduce “national education” to local classrooms provoked a backlash against what many parents and students called brainwashing; the government backed down. Every year, in another sign of a Hong Kong spirit distinct from the People’s Republic of China, tens of thousands attend the city’s annual Tiananmen Square vigil — the only such event on Chinese soil.

Beijing alternates between actively discouraging, and haughtily dismissing, dissent. It chose to do the latter with this weekend’s vote. The English edition of Global Times, a strident state media organization, downplayed the plebiscite’s significance, saying the use of online polls amounted to “mincing ludicrousness [sic].” Its editorial added: “The opposition groups and their overseas supporters have overestimated the effect of an illegal farce. Neither China’s central government nor the Hong Kong government will admit the results of the poll.”

Organizers of the Hong Kong poll initially said they hoped to attract 100,000-odd voters. Just before the online system went live, it was hit with an unusually sophisticated cyberattack. Although it is still unclear who is to blame, that attack, plus a previous cyberhit on a Hong Kong newspaper that supports the movement, is credited by some for the surge of interest in the plebiscite — both in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland.

Indeed, the Hong Kong vote quickly became one of the most talked-about stories on Chinese-language social media, spurring a raucous and at times funny debate about the vote, China’s response and the appropriate role of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. The Chinese edition of Global Times ran a piece headlined, roughly, “No matter how many people voted in the illegal Hong Kong election, it is not as many at 1.3 billion people.” One quick-witted social-media retort: “Global Times is going to give 1.3 billion people right to vote? That’s awesome news.”

That comment, and many others, were speedily censored.

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

TIME China

Be Glad You’re Not a Beijing Commuter

A security officer stands guard as passengers line up and wait for a security check during morning rush hour at Tiantongyuan North Station in Beijing May 27, 2014.
A security officer stands guard as passengers line up and wait for a security check during morning rush hour at Tiantongyuan North Station in Beijing on May 27, 2014 Jason Lee—Reuters

If you're visiting the Chinese capital, this could be a good time to take taxis

Fed up with your commute? Be thankful you don’t live in Beijing.

Chinese officials this week stepped up security at subway stations across the Chinese capital, leaving commuters languishing in epic (read: even longer than usual) lines. The airport-like security measures come after last week’s deadly attack in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang’s Uighur Autonomous Region, and a week before the politically sensitive 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The checks meant many waited 20 to 30 minutes before they could start their commutes, which are often an hour or longer.

Although the queues will no doubt test nerves in the capital, Beijing’s subway goers ought to spare a thought for the good people of Xinjiang. Security in the region is tight at the best of times, with police trucks parked near parks and public spaces and armed guards patrolling train stations. With the government promising a yearlong antiterrorist crusade, the show of force will probably only increase — meaning long lines, random checks and no shortage of suspicion to come.


The Capital of China’s Xinjiang Region Is In Lockdown After a Deadly Blast

Chinese police say an explosion has killed at least 31 people in Urumqi, the capital of China's restive northwest Xinjiang region. This comes just weeks after a bomb and knife attack at the city's rail station was blamed on extremists from the region's mostly Muslim Uighur community


Urumqi does not want for cops. The capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in China’s far northwest, is well-guarded. Riot trucks cruise city streets. Armed police stand vigil over Friday prayers. And following a deadly attack last month, the city’s railway station feels like a fortress. But none of this, it seems, has stopped the violence.

At around 7:50 a.m. Thursday two “cross-country” vehicles collided on a street near Renmin Park, about 4km from the city’s main square, sending fire and smoke shooting into the sky, according to state media reports. Witnesses told local press they heard a series of explosions and saw blazing plumes stretching one-story high. Photographs from the scene show shattered market stalls, toppled piles of produce, and bodies lining the road. Police say at least 31 people were killed.

The explosion hit the city at what is usually a quiet, restful time. China officially has one time zone, a fact that is at odds with longitudinal realities. To account for this, people in Xinjiang use both “Beijing time” and “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours behind. Ten to eight in the morning, Beijing time, is effectively 5:50 a.m. to the locals. At this hour, it’s usually only shopkeepers and the elderly who are milling about.

The early-morning chaos comes just weeks after a brutal and bloody attack at an Urumqi railway station. On April 30, a bomb and knife attack at the city’s southern train terminal left three dead — two of them attackers — and 79 injured. Several people have since been arrested in connection with that attack. Although few details have been released, authorities say they were motivated by extremism.

It will probably be days or weeks before we know what exactly happened. The authorities keep a tight lid on information about potentially sensitive subjects, and few subjects are more sensitive right now than the specter of unrest, or terrorism, in Xinjiang.

The vast homeland of the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighur people has seen a rise in violence in recent years attributed, depending on who you ask, to religious extremism, separatism, or as a reaction to forceful religious and social oppression by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Many Uighurs feel overwhelmed by the pace of immigration to Xinjiang of China’s ethnic Han majority, with Urumqi now a majority Han city.

For decades, a small minority has waged a campaign against the Chinese government, usually targeting symbols of state power in Xinjiang, including government buildings and police stations.

The violence seems to be spreading. Last fall, a truck plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen square, killing two and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by Uighur separatists, although few details have been released about the assailants — a man, his wife and his mother. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. Chinese authorities identified the group as separatists from Xinjiang.

All this has prompted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to tighten its already firm hold on the territory. In a visit to Xinjiang last month, President Xi Jinping promised a “strike first” policy and called police officers, who are disproportionately Han Chinese, the “fists and daggers” in the country’s fight against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” he reportedly advised.

By last weekend, the police were omnipresent. In Hotan, a dusty city in Xinjiang’s southwest, there were police trucks on each block of the city’s center. Roads to outlying towns and villages were blocked by checkpoints. In the otherwise laid-back and leafy capital, life continues apace, albeit in the presence of armed men. At Urumqi’s southern railway station — which is itself flanked by police stations — men with automatic weapons meet passengers at the ticket gate.

The show of force is mighty, but on this awful morning, you have to wonder if anyone feels safe.

TIME Vietnam

Vietnamese Protesters Torch Factories in Anti-China Unrest

In a sign of growing anti-Beijing sentiment, Vietnamese demonstrators set fire to 15 Taiwan-, South Korean– and other foreign-owned factories because they mistook them for Chinese enterprises

If you are going to torch a factory in a fit of nationalism, make sure you get the right factory. That’s the lesson for thousands of Vietnamese who swarmed a Singapore-run industrial park in southern Vietnam late Tuesday. The demonstrators turned arsonists set fire to 15 foreign-owned factories, reports the Associated Press, including some that were Taiwan- or South Korean–owned. Many other businesses were trashed.

The rioting followed largely peaceful protests by some 20,000 Vietnamese in Binh Duong province late Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, people on motorcycles rode through the area carrying Vietnamese flags, AP noted. One witness said foreign-owned enterprises were now hanging up pro-Vietnamese banners. “We love Vietnam,” read one.

It is still unclear if anybody was hurt in the melee, but the injuries to business could be steep: the chairwoman of the Council of Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam told Reuters the cost to Taiwan companies would be billions of dollars.

For the rest of us, the incident serves as a reminder of just how quickly a Sino-Vietnamese spat can escalate. Tuesday night’s riot started as a demonstration against China’s May 1 deployment of a massive oil rig in waters claimed by both sides. Over the past few days, there have been several skirmishes between ships from both sides, and protests across the Vietnam. On Sunday, Vietnam’s Prime Minister accused China of “brazenly” triggering the dispute.

But strong words will not be enough to dissuade Beijing. The current maritime standoff is not just about the oil rig, but unresolved territorial claims in the South China Sea. Otherwise solid ties between China and Vietnam have, for the most part, kept conflict at bay. That Vietnam’s otherwise restrictive ruling party is letting people protest shows a new willingness to speak up. But the torching of foreign-owned factories was certainly not the outcome they hoped for.

TIME China

The Invisible, but Not Forgotten Anniversary of Tiananmen Square

The 1989 Choice: China’s Paradox of Seeking Democracy and Wealth
A lone demonstrator stands down a column of tanks June 5, 1989, at the entrance to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The incident took place on the morning after Chinese troops fired on pro-democracy students who had been protesting in the square since April 15, 1989 CNN—Getty Images

As the 25th anniversary of the crackdown approaches, the Chinese Communist Party is pressuring its citizens to forget that heady push for democracy — but some are boldly struggling to keep the memory alive

They wanted him to disappear. In the early hours of May 6, Chinese authorities took away Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese human-rights lawyer who survived the June 4, 1989, crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Just days before, Pu had attended a private panel discussion on the upcoming 25th anniversary of the massacre, posing for a photograph that was posted online. Five attendees, including Pu, were later arrested.

Pu’s detention did not go unnoticed. Even as China’s censors scrambled to block searches for his name, people started talking about him online, often using coded language to get around the Great Firewall. Last Tuesday, Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (the star of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha) urged her fans to watch The Attorney, a South Korean film about a human-rights lawyer who, per Zhang, “pursues democracy, rule of law, and justice.” Netizens knew exactly what she meant; the post went viral.

With less than three weeks to go before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the ruling Chinese Communist Party is trying very hard to stay on message. For the most part, that means not talking about, or marking, the events of that restless spring. The nationwide protests that swept China that year were brutally crushed by the party and its military arm, the People’s Liberation Army, with hundreds killed. Much of what unfolded was broadcast worldwide on television, reported and photographed. But within China, information about the incident has been scrubbed from the public sphere.

“The Beijing regime has been remarkably, if temporarily, successful in enforcing its official account of 1989 within China, justifying the military crackdown as necessary for stability and prosperity and for countering a Western conspiracy to divide and weaken China,” writes Rowena Xiaoqing He, who teaches a class on Tiananmen at Harvard University, in her new book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.

Sticking to the script means that in the run-up to the anniversary each year, those who speak up are often arrested. In addition to Pu and his friends, several others have been targeted this year, including Gao Yu, 70, a protester who went on to become one of China’s most respected independent journalists. Last week she was forced to confess — on television — to charges that she leaked state secrets. On Friday, Chen Guang, a soldier turned artist whose work touches on Tiananmen and its aftermath, was also detained.

This official amnesia is an affront for those who participated in the protests, or lost loved ones in the crackdown. In 2006, Pu wrote movingly in the New York Review of Books about his annual visit to the square to honor fallen friends. “If everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres?” he asked.

The May 3 panel was perhaps an effort to stop this from happening. In a statement released to journalists and published online, the participants said they gathered to “investigate the truth of the incident” and “restore accuracy to history.” It was only by facing up to what happened, they said, that the country might start “closing its wounds.”

Healing is a long way off, but online, at least, a clandestine conversation is under way. After posts with the term Pu Zhiqiang started getting censored, Chinese Internet users started posting Pu’s photograph. When the pictures were pulled, one person responded by posting a portrait-shaped space white space. “Even though your face has been blocked,” wrote the poster, “everyone knows who is in this image.”

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