By Michael Mo, convenor of Hong Kong’s alternative Tiananmen vigil
The bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square three decades ago shocked most Hongkongers at the time. Back then, the British colony – which enjoyed freedoms equivalent to the West – would be handed back to this brutal regime within eight years. The fear of being suppressed simply because of voicing dissent drove tens of thousands of Hongkongers to emigrate to the West.
30 years on, those who remain in the “Pearl in the East” gather to light candles every year, as they commemorate those who died for their ideals of freedom and democracy in Peking.
Hongkongers are no strangers to this pro-democracy movement. Over a million citizens joined rallies in the city in 1989 to support the students a thousand miles away, in the hope that a democratic China would better preserve the freedoms they were accustomed to. Since the Sino-British negotiations on post-1997 Hong Kong did not allow the city’s residents to join the negotiating table, the Tiananmen movement was the only opportunity they could count on.
We all know now that such a wish was in vain.
Ever since the handover of sovereignty, the Peking administration has exerted its control over Hong Kong on both economic and political fronts. Hong Kong-born millennials have been forced to be patriotic to a regime which alienates them, as the administration puts its favour behind young Chinese immigrants over locally born Hongkongers. Textbooks have stripped away the history of the Tiananmen crackdown, retaining nothing but thoughts which encourage admiration of the Communist regime.
More importantly, the refusal of genuine democratic reform after the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014, in which most of the participants were young people, made it clear to the youth that there is no reason to be patriotic to such a regime. With slogans such as “loving the country but not the party” being chanted by the organisers of the annual vigil at Victoria Park, it is natural for millennials not to show up at this iconic commemoration. Unlike middle-aged Hongkongers who were passionate back in 1989, the younger generation does not think a democratic system in China would help to solve the pressing quality-of-life issues that they face in Hong Kong today.
Facing the threat of vanishing memories, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organises the annual vigil at Victoria Park, has little room to make the Tiananmen crackdown more relevant to the youth. The founding principles of the Alliance, drafted by the late pro-democracy godfather Szeto Wah, are to be patriotic to China, making it an almost impossible ideal for the current leaders of the group to abandon.
Still, Hongkongers do have to pass the memories on. The tragedy in Peking did indeed awaken the civic consciousness of Hongkongers and pushed the British to implement democratic reform, which people in the territory still partially enjoy today. Without the ultimate sacrifice of the students in Tiananmen Square, the destiny of Hong Kong would have been very different.
Hongkongers will light candles on this night as always. The June 4 massacre will always be relevant to Hongkongers, but after 30 years of commemoration twisted with patriotic thoughts, perhaps it is high time to unwind such thoughts and to view the commemoration from the point of view of local Hong Kong people.
Michael Mo is the organiser of the alternative Tiananmen crackdown vigil in Hong Kong. He is also the co-founder of Lab in Hong Kong, the youth-led policy research institute. He is active in various social movements including the campaign against the new runway expansion at the Hong Kong airport.