Retiree Mr. Lo couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw tanks rolling in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. He was 34 years old.
“It is a thorn in my heart that cannot be easily removed. It really hurt to see the event unfold,” Lo, now a father of two, told HKFP.
Since then, Lo has attended almost every candlelit vigil held annually at Victoria Park to seek justice for those killed in the bloody crackdown. He was among tens of thousands of people who turned up at the vigil on Sunday.
But there are signs that the city’s young generations may no longer feel a strong connection to the crackdown that took place 28 years ago. Several university student unions said they did not stage any event on Sunday because they wanted to focus on local history amid the rise of localism.
Organisers said around 110,000 people attended the vigil – the lowest since 2008, when only 48,000 people turned up to commemorate the massacre. Since 2009, more than 100,000 have attended each year.
The student union of the Chinese University of Hong Kong attracted criticism after it accused the vigil organiser Hong Kong Alliance of using the event to “expend June 4, manipulate the public’s morality and exchange it for political capital.” They said the vigil had become a formality.
Activist Avery Ng of the League of Social Democrats, described this attitude as cynical: “This feeling is understandable, but it doesn’t mean it is right. Because if you stay silent or even pretend nothing had happened, this kind of reaction is even more ineffective,” he told HKFP.
He said the annual vigil ensures the incident will be remembered by people in Hong Kong, mainland China and other countries – and it is important to remember because “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants everyone to forget about this historical event.”
With the People’s Liberation Army based in Hong Kong, Ng said, it is “delusional” for anyone to say what happens north of Hong Kong is irrelevant to people in the city.
“If you really care about Hong Kong and localism, you should speak up even more. You should do everything you can to challenge the CCP regime,” he said. “Because the CCP will do everything to kill and silence people, including Hong Kong if its democracy threatens its power.”
‘Not in vain’
Echoing Ng’s remarks, lawmaker Charles Mok told HKFP that it is a matter of principle. “[I]f there is something we believe in, it doesn’t matter how much time has come between the incident and the day. We still have to continue with our belief.”
The IT sector legislator was a fresh graduate working in the US 28 years ago. After the crackdown took place, he said he worked with others to translate updates into English in an effort to disseminate the news to the international community.
“We still believe that we [need] to make sure these victims, and the lives lost, were not lost in vain,” he said.
Similarly, vigil attendee Ronda Yu, 48, told HKFP: “Whether the vigil has an impact or not, we need to persist because we need to tell China that we will never give up until it admits its wrongdoing.”
Yu has attended the Victoria Park vigil around ten times. She believes if people continue to participate, the government will not have an excuse to shut down the event.
But she added: “I am afraid that by the time I become old, people will no longer show up to the vigil.”
Fears of crackdown
Meanwhile, others fear that the vigil might discontinue because of a potential crackdown by the Hong Kong government.
Software engineer Richard Wong, 30, told HKFP that he believed the vigil would disappear one day. “Maybe in 10 years’ time,” he said.
“Twenty years since the so-called handover, Hong Kong has only integrated with China more and more. We see regress in many areas, especially the political system,” he said. “Without a democratic system, our freedoms will only keep shrinking.”
Law professor Benny Tai, who led the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014, thinks that it is not yet time to worry about a government crackdown.
“It is difficult for the government to suppress the vigil within the legal framework, even if Article 23 [security law] is legislated. It cannot suppress the event unless the One Country, Two Systems framework completely disappears,” he said.
In response to criticism that the vigil has become a formality, Tai said: “While it doesn’t have any immediate impact, it has a symbolic impact – and don’t underestimate that. Its symbolic impact is to carry on a political culture so that mainlanders will be able to understand what happened. When the timing is ripe, maybe they will take action based on this symbol.”
“The key is persistence,” Tai added. “People have different priorities in different times – that is fine. As long as there is a group of people who persist, the movement will survive.”
Lo, the 62-year-old retiree, is one of those determined to continue with the movement no matter how many more years it may take for them to receive a satisfactory response from the Chinese government.
— PLG 法政匯思 (@hongkong_plg) June 4, 2017
“If you have empathy and remember what you saw, I think anyone alive with a conscience should continue to attend this vigil, unless the government clamps down on it,” he said.
“As long as I am alive, I will keep coming.”