Posted: June 6, 2014
Local pro-democracy partisans may be conflicted about how to introduce universal suffrage elections here but there is one thing about which, it’s safe to say, there is general agreement. Even pro-Beijing loyalists can muster no arguments worthy of the name against the freedom of political expression in all its many manifestations, including the right to remember the political past.
Probably just because the Chinese government has gone to such extreme lengths to blank out all public references to what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, so Hong Kong values its autonomy and its right to remember that much more. Attendance at the candlelight vigil that began 25 years ago in memory of those killed in 1989 … when China’s army used live fire to clear the square of democracy protesters … has grown here in recent years. Numbers have doubled and tripled compared to most of the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1997 just before he took office, Hong Kong’s first post-colonial Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa 【董建華】did his best to convince people to “lay down the burden of June Fourth.” Later his administration even floated a plan to close the traditional Victoria Park venue “for renovations,” apparently thinking the threat would help discourage interest. Eventually he gave up and no one has mentioned the possibility for years.
No polls have tried to asses why attendance has risen so sharply, from around 50,000 to 100,000+ since 2009. There might be many reasons: benchmark 20th and 25th anniversaries; the illness and death of the event’s long-time leader Szeto Wah 【司徒華】when Hong Kongers came out to say thank you and good-bye; many more mainland tourists who want to watch a ceremony that is banned across the border; and rising political awareness among Hong Kong’s own young people who were not even born in 1989.
But perhaps there is another reason, namely, a growing sense of the growing overt mainland political presence here, and of Hong Kong’s shrinking autonomy, and of what that means by comparison with the political life that might lie ahead. Nothing better illustrates the difference than Beijing’s effort to eliminate June 4, 1989 from the political memory of an entire nation.
Mainlanders who profess ignorance or unconcern about 1989 evoke a nagging sense of apprehension. There but for the grace of Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems autonomy go all of us, people say. They also think of the national political studies curriculum that almost became compulsory here two years ago, and of the Article 23 national political security legislation that almost became law in 2003. Local loyalists, virtually all of whom expressed shock and dismay along with everyone else in 1989, are targets of mockery for their about-face evasive responses now.
Police estimated turnout this year at 100,000; organizers claimed 180,000. Safe to conclude, as usual, somewhere in-between. All six soccer pitches were packed by starting time at 8:00 p.m. The adjacent park area plus the basketball court filled up soon afterward … which means 100,000 people at least. Fundraising netted a healthy HK$1.8 million with a big increase in renminbi donations from mainlanders.
PATRIOTIC AMENSIA FOR HONG KONG?
The increasing mainland-style presence was represented by one of the new patriotic vigilante groups, Voice of Loving Hong Kong 【愛港之聲】. They applied to set up a roadside stall along with many others, pro-democracy groups, that always turn out for fundraising. The police assigned Patrick Ko’s Voice a spot far from the main Causeway Bay approach to the park and then surrounded them with metal crowd control barriers just to be safe. But despite some heckling, they persevered with their attempt at the official whitewash and a banner that recalled Tung Chee-hwa’s famous injunction to “lay down the burden” of June Fourth.
Patrick Ko Tat-pun 【高達斌】had gained instant notoriety from a June 2 radio talk show performance during which he claimed there had been no massacre in Tiananmen Square and then waffled his way through the question as to whether anyone had actually been killed. He elaborated by blaming fellow talk-show guest Lee Cheuk-yan 【李卓人】for whatever it was that had happened, saying he was the first person who should be held responsible.
The background to this outlandish charge was the popular support drive that Hong Kong activists had organized to help sustain protesting students in Tiananmen Square during the weeks they camped out there. Lee was in charge of delivering contributions to the students. Patrick Ko said that if Lee and his friends had not sent money and supplies, the students would not have been able to hold out so long and the army would not have needed to clear the square.
Lee Cheuk-yan succeeded Szeto Wah as chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China after his death in 2011. It grew out of the 1989 protests and has organized the annual vigil along with other memorial activities ever since. Lee is also chairman of Hong Kong’s Labor Party.
FEUDING DEMOCRATS, ALTERNATIVE VIGILS
On the face of it, June Fourth is not directly related to Hong Kong’s ongoing political reform saga. But everyone pays homage to the memory of June Fourth and the fierce debates among pro-democracy politicians inevitably carry over from one realm to the other. This year’s vigil illustrates just how fundamental the differences among them have become.
June 4, 1989, had written an end to China’s own 1980s democracy movement but its Hong Kong counterpart carried on in its 1980s belief that the only guarantee of a democratic political system here was a democratic government for all China. Hence the name they still use: Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. And so, too, one of its original lead slogans: “end one-party rule.” But with Beijing having used its new economic wealth to strengthen China’s one-party dictatorship, Hong Kong’s June Fourth alliance cannot hope to see fulfillment of its original dream any time soon.
Soul searching over the wisdom of continuing to defy Beijing’s definition of its political sovereignty for so futile a goal actually began years ago. But Szeto Wah had served as a unifying force in his two roles as a leader of both the Democratic Party and of the Hong Kong Alliance. He insisted on keeping the June Fourth tradition alive during the years when interest began to wane. Emphasis on the “subversive” slogan calling for an end to one-party rule nevertheless receded during the last years of his life. This led to a rift with radicals angry over his and the Democratic Party’s moderate drift and his willingness to let the June Fourth alliance drift as well. Radicals blamed it on the dual DP/HK Alliance leadership of the ailing Szeto that also allowed Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho to make his controversial compromise decision on political reform in 2010.
Radical leaders were Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man 【黃毓民】and “Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung 【梁國雄】and their League of Social Democrats. Wong then split to form People Power and dropped out of party politics altogether last year. Now he’s back … with his usual flare and refurbished radical themes beginning with the Hong Kong Alliance and its compromising electioneering politician supporters who he accuses of exploiting June Fourth for their own political gain.
Wong says his only concern now is radical agitation. This he carries out online and in person through his Proletarian Political Institute and a new publication. He and his friends call it Passion Times 【熱血時報】and their first big event was an alternative candlelight vigil across town in Kowloon, far from what they denounced as the showy ceremonial extravaganza in Victoria Park.
Lee Cheuk-yan said he was worried about the impact on turnout of Raymond Wong’s venture. Perhaps that was why Lee re-emphasized the old slogan, even shouting out in English at a pep rally: “end one-party rule.” The slogan also featured prominently on the banners of his own Labor Party stall outside the park on June Fourth: 結束一黨專政 .
Lee needn’t have worried about turnout. Wong could only claim 7,000 for his event; police estimated 3,000. But Wong’s cross-town arguments will continue to resonate because as usual and despite the havoc he has wrought, Wong is saying the things that many think should be said. He is also a skillful polemicist and pamphleteer and a series of well-constructed well-translated Passion Times April essays appeared suddenly via Google Alerts in a new online format called The Real Hong Kong News (http://therealnewshk.wordpress.com ), all dated May 31.
The message was clear and sharp: do commemorate June Fourth but do not go to Victoria Park. Why? Because of the “Greater China Unification” belief that pan-democrats cling to … still begging Beijing’s indulgence to reverse the charge of subversion that Beijing declared to justify its use of force on June Fourth.
What has the lead slogan “Reverse the Verdict on June Fourth” 【平反六四】 achieved in the past 25 years? All we see is increasing encroachment on Hong Kong’s way of economic life to say nothing of the growing threat to rights and freedoms and especially to demands for democratic governance? … Then the specific target emerged: Raymond Wong’s quarrel with the Democratic Party over its betrayal of the struggle for democracy, seen now in the party’s refusal to endorse public participation in nominations for the first universal suffrage Chief Executive election in 2017.
Lee Cheuk-yan’s Hong Kong Alliance needn’t have worried about turnout. But Joseph Cheng’s Alliance for True Democracy will have a much tougher time forging consensus on electoral reform. And yet … Raymond Wong’s consciousness-raising harangue may serve to stiffen resolve … just as it apparently goaded Lee Cheuk-yan to do what Szeto Wah in his declining years had tried to avoid: reinvigorate the struggle against one-party dictatorship.
Of course, Lee still couldn’t compare with Passion Times (April 29 issue) in its declaration that “the only objective in commemorating June Fourth is the overthrow of the Communist Party” 【打倒共產黨才是悼念六四的唯一目標】. Raymond Wong couldn’t care less about preserving the patriotic unification legacy of June Fourth and he blames those who do for dithering over the more urgent need to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy.
((Next: Ronny Tong debates the design of the election/nominating committee at last.))