Opinion Politics & Protest

‘Never bet against the people of Hong Kong’: Why I won’t abandon this city, even as its politics deteriorate

When asked, with increasing frequency, why I am not thinking of quitting Hong Kong as the political situation deteriorates by the day, I can reply with just two words – June Fourth.

It may seem unduly macabre to focus on the commemoration of a massacre as a reason for a tenacious commitment to Hong Kong but let me explain.

vigil tiananmen

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP remix.

During the early hours of the morning on June 4th, 1989, when the tanks were rolling into Tiananmen Square and protestors were being mowed down I got a call from the BBC asking me to file a Hong Kong reaction piece. ‘But it’s the middle of the night’, I said plaintively, ‘I’m not sure anyone will want to be disturbed at this time of day’. Do your best I was told.

So, with some temerity I started working my way through a long contacts list and found that every single number I called was engaged. No one was asleep. They were wide awake and frantically organising a rally to be held in the morning. ‘How many people do you think will turn up?’ I asked one of those I finally managed to speak to. Words to the effect of ‘hard to say’ was the response, so I filed what is called in the trade, a holding piece, mentioning that there would be a rally which could attract thousands of participants.

How wrong I was, there were not thousands but hundreds of thousands of people silently making their way to the start of the demonstration. It was intensely hot and the pressure of the enormous crowd meant that marchers had to stand patiently for a very long time before moving.

Despite the huge numbers, some estimates said that as many as one million people eventually turned out, there was no need for any policing, the crowd exercised solemn self-discipline.

June 4 Hong Kong protest tiananmen 1989

1989. Photo: Hemlock.

Moving down Hennessy Road a huge cheer swelled up when people saw journalists from the pro-Communist Ta Kung Pao newspaper waving and giving the thumbs up. Buses lost in the sea of people simply emptied as their passengers joined the rally. Radio stations had abandoned all pretence of regular programming as their presenters called for people to join the march. If you wanted to capture an impressive image of people united in sorrow and anger, this was it.

Shamefacedly, I admitted to a friend that I had underestimated the people of Hong Kong. He assured me that I was not the first person to make this mistake and offered some sound advice that has rarely proved to be wrong: ‘never bet against the people of Hong Kong’.

The intense emotions surrounding June 4th have understandably dimmed, yet, each year tens of thousands of people make their way to Victoria Park to join the commemoration of the massacre and to demand vindication for the victims. Some years fewer people turn up but when, as was the case this year, Hong Kong’s shameless government acts to undermine the autonomy that was promised to the SAR, the numbers swell.

tiananmen massacre vigil 2019

Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

And who turns up? Despite what you may have read about young people turning their backs on this event, they were there in large numbers last week. Families with small children were everywhere to be seen as parents explained to the next generation why it was important never to forget. Elderly people were there, middle-aged people were there, working-class people were there, middle-class people were there – it was, as ever, a cross-section of society.

And why are they there? One of the main reasons, stressed by speakers at the commemoration, is that this is the only place in China where the truth about history can be remembered and Hong Kong people are determined not to fritter away a liberty denied to the overwhelming mass of their compatriots. It is a responsibility that has been willingly shouldered.

Confident predictions that the defeat of the Umbrella Movement meant the demise of the democracy movement have been confounded. Even the jailing of its leaders and the rash of government action to punish dissidents has failed to extinguish the flame of liberty. The faint hearts who believed that Hongkongers were so easily scared have, yet again, been proven wrong.

Of course people’s daily lives are not consumed by politics and, of course, people have many other things to occupy their time but when push comes to shove the magnificent people of Hong Kong can always be counted upon.

The extraordinary level of political participation here is often not appreciated. For example, in proportionate terms the 180,000-strong turnout at this year’s commemoration i.e. number of protestors relative to the size of the population, would mean that in Britain something like 1.5 million people would have been on the streets. And this was not the biggest protest ever seen in Hong Kong.

tiananmen massacre vigil 2019

Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

But it’s not just people taking to the streets, ordinary citizens generously providing funds to keep all manner of pro-democracy organizations in business. Hong Kong people are avid consumers of the news and are way better informed than citizens in other places. Moreover, every time one strata of the pro-democracy leadership is taken down, a new one emerges to take its place.

So, that bet against the people of Hong Kong is never going to be made by me. And, like many others I try to be loyal to the people, it’s a loyalty that means a great deal more than all the manufactured patriotic fervour and flag waving by people who, in their heart of hearts despise the people. As Berthold Brecht famously said when mocking East Germany’s Communist dictators, if only they could change the people…


Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

funding drive press for freedom kong tsung-gan

'Never bet against the people of Hong Kong': Why I won't abandon this city, even as its politics deteriorate