Posted: June 10, 2013
Hong Kong’s defiance of Beijing was put to one more test on June Fourth when a torrential downpour began almost precisely at 8 p.m., just as the annual candle light vigil in Victoria Park was getting underway. Preparations for the event were more contentious than usual this year with challenges coming from all sides (May 30 post). The vigil commemorates those killed on June 4, 1989, when Chinese leaders used military force to clear protesters from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
China’s own democracy movement, which had been progressing by fits and starts throughout the 1980s, was brought to an abrupt halt during the round-up that followed. Consequently, all June Fourth memorials are banned elsewhere in China. But instead of fading from public memory as Beijing has tried its best to make happen, defiance seems to be growing on both sides of the border and mainlanders have begun openly thanking Hong Kong for keeping the faith. Hong Kong is protected from the rigors of mainland one-party rule for 50 years from 1997 when the British returned sovereignty to China.
The final test for Hong Kong’s determination this year, once the ceremonial slogans had been decided upon, came after all six of Victoria Park’s soccer pitches were filled to capacity and everyone was waiting for the program to begin. The playing fields are the traditional venue. People were sitting side by side on the ground in their usual serried ranks, with overflow crowds front and back by the main park exits. Organizers were warming up, sound equipment had been tested, the giant TV monitors were in place. These relay the proceedings on stage up front to those seated in the distant pitches. And then without warning the deluge began. But instead of running for cover, everyone simply stood up sheltering under umbrellas and makeshift rain gear. The program began and proceeded as best it could.
Tens of thousands then stood for over an hour in driving rain complete with thunder and lightening while the ceremonial routines continued. These are by now familiar and follow the same pattern every year. Regulars know the chants, songs, and slogans by heart … tough luck for everyone else since the sound equipment was barely audible and soggy printed program guides weren’t much help either.
High point of the evening is always the candle-lighting sequence when the playing fields are transformed into a sea of flickering lights. This year it was a sea of umbrellas with everyone struggling to keep their candles lit and umbrellas upright all at the same time. The program was scheduled to run for two hours but after an hour or so the organizers decided to call it quits. Participants held up better than the sound system but with electrical cables strung all around the flooded grounds, plus lightening above, the safest course would have been to end it sooner.
TURNOUT: A FULL HOUSE
Organizers claimed 150,000 people were there; the police estimate was 54,000. Hong Kong may be allowed to continue holding such politically provocative events, but that doesn’t mean the authorities have to like them. In the case of such big people-power demonstrations, “the authorities” demonstrate their unhappiness by regularly and increasingly underestimating turnout figures. Who exactly might be responsible for such unhappiness is not known but it is the police who announce the estimates that are evidently intended to discredit the claims of popular participation.
In this case, however, organizers of the June Fourth vigil … the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China [支聯會 ] … must also accept responsibility. And unlike other big demonstrations, the gap between organizers and police on June Fourth has always been enormous dating back to the very first memorial in 1990 (150,000 vs. 80,000).
Ironically, such calculations would be easy enough to provide for the June Fourth vigil in particular given its site and organization. The playing fields are the same size they have always been and the candle light vigil has always been held on those same soccer pitches. The organizational arrangements are also always the same. Police stand by and event monitors guide arrivals, first come first serve, into the best “seats” … front row of the soccer pitch closest to the temporary stage set up near the eastern entrance to the park. People sit on the ground, close together … this year there was no space between each opened umbrella after everyone stood up. When the first row across is filled, a second forms, and so on until row by row each soccer pitch fills up. When all six are full along with some extra spaces behind the stage and beyond the last rows at the far western end of the paved playing fields, police divert overflow late arrivals to the lanes and grassy area north of the pitches.
By 8:45 last Tuesday just before organizers called it quits, all six soccer pitches were full to overflowing and late arrivals were being diverted to the side lanes. Therefore: the June Fourth vigil this year could claim a full house. The same has been true every year since the 20th anniversary in 2009. As to exactly how many people participated, both the organizers and the police could easily calculate the numbers they can pack into each pitch. Four years saw turnouts so low that the police didn’t bother to estimate but organizers did: between 45,000 and 50,000, between 2000 and 2003. Those were also the years when photos showed only half the playing field area filled with candle lights. That being the case, an overflow crowd must add up to something like 100,000 people … an impressive figure if only someone would take the trouble to verify (full sequence of estimates to date reprinted in Hong Kong Economic Journal [信報 ], June 5).
FOR LOVE OF COUNTRY?
No one seemed to care very much about the slogans controversy (May 31 post). It gave Alliance organizers one more chance to explain that when Hong Kong democrats say “love the country” [ 愛國 ] they mean one thing and official Beijing means something else. A leader of the Tiananmen Mothers support group in Beijing, Ding Zilin [丁字霖 ], had objected to the lead slogan for this year’s event: “love the country, love the people,” despite the other slogans that expressed Hong Kong’s defiance of one-party communist rule. She said “love the country” had been hijacked by official Beijing since 1989 to mean loving the communist party-led government, which she and many others like her did not.
Ding Zilin is not allowed to travel here but she lends her support to the annual vigil and is able to collaborate by phone and video link. One of the Hong Kong Alliance organizers initially lost his cool and insulted her for quibbling, so Alliance chairman Lee Cheuk-yan [ 李卓人 ] personally apologized and agreed to drop the offending phrase. His promise left the June Fourth stage unusually bare of decorative banners and slogans save the one main demand: Vindicate June Fourth; Never Give Up [ 平反六四，永不放棄 ].
The new breed of local “true autonomy” advocates also objected to “love the country” on grounds it had nothing to do with them one way or the other. They vowed to boycott the Victoria Park event but could not resist holding separate gatherings of their own elsewhere around town. News reports put their combined turnout at a few hundred people.
CARRY ON, LEUNG CHUN-YING
Since Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had spoken out against the 1989 crackdown at the time, journalists like to try and embarrass him by asking for a comment now. He routinely refuses to take the bait. But this year he outdid himself by traveling to Shanghai where he gave a speech that made him seem even more clueless than usual about the growing political tensions here.
Leung reportedly said he hoped Hong Kongers would lay down their stubborn political struggles [ 希望港人放下政治爭拗 ] and allow the city to take its rightful place in Beijing’s grand plan for an economically integrated south China region. He spoke of the future in glowing a-political terms (as only a professional property surveyor can). There would be unprecedented prospects for growth and development, prospects unseen anywhere ever before on such a scale. Opportunities would be limitless, new vistas, employment opportunities, etc. etc. Hong Kong must join the rush or risk falling behind.
Not content to leave it at that, Leung went on to champion the first stages of this great integration project: the Hong Kong-Macau Pearl River Delta Bridge and the high-speed rail link that Hong Kongers had spent so much time and effort trying unsuccessfully to block (posts: May 13, 2011; Jan. 29, 2010). But of the political integration that must inevitably be part of such an economic juggernaut, he had not a word to say (TVB evening news, June 5; Wen Wei Po, China Daily, June 6).
Beijing and Leung Chun-ying are obviously working toward a one-country, one-system future while Hong Kongers are still trying to protect their one-county, two-systems political guarantees. Since he refuses to acknowledge that contradiction, Leung will have to learn to live with the stubborn political struggles. Local anxieties derive from that disconnect and no one as yet is willing to address the problem much less propose solutions.