Long a torch-bearer for Tiananmen protests, Hong Kong now rethinks

Protesters carry yellow umbrellas, a symbol of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, as they attend a rally in Hong Kong on May 31 to commemorate the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, prior to the incident's 26th anniversary on June 4.

Protesters carry yellow umbrellas, a symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, as they attend a rally in Hong Kong on May 31 to commemorate the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, prior to the incident’s 26th anniversary on June 4.

(Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)

On June 4, 1989, millions of Hong Kong residents were glued to their television sets, watching rifle-toting Chinese soldiers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square crush protesters clamoring for an open, democratic government.

While China has sought to block out memories of the crackdown, the event has been marked annually in Hong Kong with marches and candlelight vigils, even since the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty 18 years ago.

So when tens of thousands of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters faced off last fall against police in military fatigues who fired tear gas canisters, many observers outside China saw the demonstrations as a sort of revival of the 1989 movement, rejuvenated by a new generation.

In fact, the body politic in Hong Kong is deeply divided over how to commemorate the events of 1989 and connect them with its current democratic struggle.

This year’s Tiananmen Square anniversary also comes at a critical political juncture. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy coalition – including high-school and college activists, middle-class professionals and so-called pan-democratic legislators – is seeking to block the city’s legislature from adopting a new Beijing-mandated electoral framework.


The plan, critics say, offers the appearance of increased democracy but in fact mandates a nomination system for the city’s highest office that would stifle a full range of candidates.

For many youths who threw themselves into the so-called Umbrella Movement last year, the annual vigil of lighting candles and chanting slogans to mark the Tiananmen crackdown now feels feeble -- and they believe it has done little to further the cause of democracy.

Moreover, they’re questioning whether they should bear the mantle of Tiananmen, or rather focus their fight on Hong Kong.

The soul-searching was touched off when the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the university group that spearheaded the Umbrella Movement, decided not to officially attend Thursday’s annual vigil. Some members said they objected to the perennial organizer’s avowed goal: to fight for a democratic China.

“It remains important to remember Tiananmen, because this shows the regime we’re up against what it really is. But we should prioritize on building a democratic Hong Kong,” said Ryo Lau, 19, a leader of Hong Kong Baptist University student union, which successfully pushed for the opt-out. “Our mission is to fight for free and fair elections here.”

In August, the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, or NPC, set a framework for future elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive, in effect limiting the choice of candidates to only two or three approved by a nominating committee expected to be composed largely of people regarded as pro-Beijing.

The framework triggered unprecedented street protests lasting 10 weeks, with thousands of demonstrators clogging major Hong Kong thoroughfares and laying siege to government headquarters. The sit-ins ended in mid-December when police cleared the streets after receiving a court order.

Until the Umbrella Movement erupted, Tiananmen was long Hong Kongers’ rallying cry for democracy, and the vigil’s organizer, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements, the long-standing unifying pro-democracy force here. The alliance was formed in the spring of 1989 to support student protesters in Beijing.

For Hong Kongers now age 45 and older, their rude political awakening came during the wee hours of that June day in 1989. Overnight, the city’s democracy movement was energized – and for the first time converged with a sister movement in mainland China.

It was a momentous shift.

Just a few years earlier, many colonial Hong Kongers – including some who would go on to form the alliance -- had pushed for the “democratic return” of the territory to China, content with the promise that the territory would enjoy of “a high degree autonomy” for 50 years under the “one country, two systems” treaty framework hammered out between Beijing and London.

“Every generation is marked by a different movement,” said Richard Tsoi, 47, the alliance’s vice chairman. “For me, it’s a historical continuum, and every fight reinforces one another.”

Even though Hong Kong children born in the 1980s and 1990s heard much about the Tiananmen crackdown from their parents and teachers, they also grew up increasingly seeing themselves as Hong Kongers, with an identity distinct from citizens of mainland China.

For these youths, the relevant fight is to fend off what they see as an ever-growing encroachment of mainland China on Hong Kong’s freedoms and resources. Many regard fighting for democracy in mainland China as a lost cause, or at least a cause that is not their concern.

So, at commemorations in recent years, they chafed at the alliance harping on the patriotic fight for China’s democracy – which sounds to their ears no different from Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

Even as the alliance’s vigil drew a record crowd of 180,000 for the 25th anniversary last year, the first-ever counter-commemoration organized by a nativist group Civic Passion, was attended by 3,000 people, and Communist Party flags were torched.

Nevertheless, at Sunday’s march led by the alliance to demand justice for the June 4th victims, about 100 of the estimated 3,000 participants were students. Despite their modest turnout, they just might be the ones who can bridge the widening generational gulf.

“Keep the spirit of student movements alive!” they chanted. Many of them were suited in black T-shirts emblazoned with the protest slogans from the Tiananmen era and wore the Umbrella Movement wristband.

“You can’t separate democracy for China from democracy for Hong Kong,” said Jackson Chui, 19, a second-year student in social work. “After all, the two places are intertwined in so many ways.”

Law is a special correspondent.