Posted: June 8, 2017
Observers and onlookers keep asking if Hong Kong’s democracy movement is now in a state of terminal decline. They wonder how anything so diverse and fragmented can withstand the official barrage being laid down by the central and local governments.
Beijing’s relentless rhetoric against all manifestations of “separatism”… meaning local Hong Kong defiance of its directives … have been reinforced by multiple threatening declarations from on high. These are being translated into action by the Hong Kong government’s current attempt to disqualify 10 newly-elected legislative Councilors.
Its bifurcated 70-seat legislature was preordained, by design, to guarantee majority status for conservatives and pro-Beijing loyalists. Hence despite receiving 59% of the popular vote, pro-democracy candidates secured only 29 seats in last September’s election (Sept. 20, 2016 post).
Ten of those 29 Legislative Councilors are now being charged with various offenses related to their oath-taking at the start of the legislative year last September, and actions during the 2014 Occupy protest movement (April 19, 2017 post)
The aim is to intimidate political actors especially from the new generation of dissenters that stood as the vanguard in 2014, discredit them in the eyes of their audience, punish key players, and lure others with rewards for good behavior. Everything possible is being thrown at them short of direct mainland hard-power intervention.
Beijing evidently assumed that 20 years after their reversion to Chinese rule, Hong Kong compatriots would be well on their way to a satisfied future within the Chinese body politick. Instead, democracy campaigners of the first generation that had emerged by the end of British rule in 1997, are being succeeded by the new younger 2014 generation.
These successors are dedicated to the same aims. They all want to maintain Hong Kong’s inherited rights and freedoms to be guaranteed by elected self-government, which Beijing had promised as part of the 1997 handover agreements. Only the younger generation is tougher, more politically alert, and more determined in their resistance to Beijing-style intervention that has itself evolved and accelerated.
Their resolve is now being tested in many ways as onlookers try to keep score and optimism recedes with every blow. Beijing’s efforts to subdue may ultimately prevail. But if so, it hasn’t happened yet. The two generations have just passed one of their first tests with flags and colors still intact despite the divisions between them.
THE JUNE FOURTH CHALLENGE
Hong Kong has commemorated Beijing’s June 4, 1989 crackdown against Beijing’s own democracy movement every year since, beginning with a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park on the evening of June Fourth 1990. Students and other protesters had occupied Tiananmen Square in central Beijing and when they refused to leave, then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to clear the square.
The number of lives lost will probably never be known and Hong Kong was traumatized by the event. Preparations for the colony’s return to Chinese rule were already well advanced. Worst fears about the communist regime had been realized and democracy campaigners saw their cause as one with the Tiananmen Square protesters … all inspired by the dream of a democratizing China.
A sponsoring organization was set up, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, reflecting the aspirations of that time. In the forefront were lawyer Martin Lee Chu-ming 【李柱銘】and education activist Szeto Wah 【司徒華】. Lee and Szeto joined in launching the Democratic Party a few years later and one of their favorite themes was that there could be no democracy in Hong Kong without democracy in China.
But the theme had been inspired by China’s own 1980s experiments with democratic reform and these ground to a halt after 1989. Eventually the theme faded as the futility of pinning Hong Kong’s hopes on Chinese reform became increasingly evident. Meanwhile, pressure from Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa 【董建華】to “lay aside the burden” of June Fourth, and ongoing pressures from Beijing officials, led to much debate about continuing to evoke the memory of Beijing’s July Fourth crackdown.
Yet the debate has always ended with the same conclusion: never forget June Fourth! The sponsoring organization remains the same and the vigil remains dedicated to those who lost their lives in 1989. Slogans also remain the same and are probably what most infuriate Beijing since by Beijing standards they all proclaim subversive intent. The slogans: Vindicate June Fourth. Release Dissidents. Demand Accountability for the Massacre. End One-Party Dictatorship. Build a Democratic China.
Soon after the new separatist thinking began to attract attention, however, a new challenge emerged within Hong Kong’s democracy movement itself. The new critique followed from the futility of the original “democratic China” ideal and attacked the Hong Kong Alliance for chasing a mirage. The organizers and their first generation pro-democracy leaders were trying to keep hope alive with the lure of democratic “Greater China Unification,” even as that hope continued to recede (June 6, 2014 post).
Beijing officials might have welcomed this development since they enforce a strict ban on all mention of Tiananmen 1989. Only Hong Kong is allowed to commemorate the memory and no mention of it can be found in local pro-Beijing media sources. But of course Beijing deplores everything about the new thinking that crystallized during the 2014 Occupy protest movement.
Adherents are even more determined than anyone was before, in the belief that Beijing has no intention of ever allowing genuine democratic reform anywhere any time soon. The challenge, they say, is to strengthen their own identity as Hong Kongers and build their own democratic institutions, that is, built in Hong Kong not Beijing.
BUT WILL THE PUBLIC CONTINUE TO SHOW UP?
The answer, for now, is yes. The indicators are a small preparatory afternoon march that is always held on the Sunday before the day itself, and then the size of the crowd that has gathered on Victoria Park’s six soccer pitches by 8:00 p.m. on June Fourth
This year conservative headlines were happy to proclaim that the pre-event Sunday afternoon turnout was way down: “the lowest since 2008.” Ditto the crowd in the park (South China Morning Post, May 29, June 5). Only they failed to note what happened in 2009, why attendance peaked that year, and why numbers have remained high ever since, including this year.
In fact, all six soccer pitches were full last Sunday. People sit on the ground, first-come-first-closest to the stage up front. Back in the days before the police began seriously underestimating numbers, six soccer pitches represented a full house and about 85,000 people. This year it was a full house with spill-over on a nearby lawn.
Organizers estimated 110,000; police 18,000. The police must have stopped counting around 7:30 when the first soccer pitch was full and new arrivals began filing into the second. Skeptics can view the photographs of all six pitches (Apple Daily, Ming Pao, June 5).
Attendance peaked in 2009 because it was a milestone year, the 20th anniversary. Organizers estimated 200,000 but numbers were too great to calculate because the spill-over extended into footpaths and flower beds and out onto nearby city streets.
The next year, 2010, was unusual in that it was the first year in a long while that the police allowed themselves to announce a figure at least approximating the organizers’ claim: 110,000 vs. 150,000, respectively.
The reason for the crowds that year, and perhaps for the police respect as well, was Szeto Wah who had been there from the beginning, in 1989. He was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer in November 2009, and everyone knew he was presiding for the last time. In 2011, the vigil mourned his passing and attendance has remained above 100,000 ever since (Apple, Ming Pao, June 5).
For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, attendance had leveled off at half the peak numbers and as a rough rule of thumb, the soccer pitches were never full during those years.
Press accounts speculated that the lower Victoria Park attendance rate this year, compared to last, was due to the post-Occupy generation’s localist Hong Kong-centered concerns. But going against the June Fourth mainstream may actually have peaked last year since the counter-current seemed much stronger then than now.
Last year, 11 tertiary-level student unions joined the counter-commemoration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Another was held at the University of Hong Kong. Estimated turnouts: Victoria Park: 125,000; CUHK, 1,600; HKU, 1,000 (Ming Pao, June 5, 2016).
Fewer schools participated in this year’s events and estimated attendance was also down: Victoria Park: 110,000; CUHK, 200 + 800 live-stream; HKU, 400 (Apple, Nikkei news service, June 5, 2017).
Also unlike last year, the two main alternate events at the two universities were held in the afternoon (Apple Daily, June 4). The idea was to allow attendance at the Victoria Park vigil for those who wanted to do both.
A third forum was hosted jointly by student unions from five tertiary-level schools the day before, on June 3 (HK Free Press, June 3).
The HKU forum also featured two speakers who are firm believers in perpetuating the memory of June Fourth. The two guests were: long-time Hong Kong Alliance leader Lee Cheuk-yan 【李卓人】and veteran commentator Joseph Lian Yi-zheng 【練乙錚】. Lian said June Fourth should remain as a warning and a reminder of the danger Beijing represents.
At the Chinese University, student union leaders themselves had not organized the afternoon forum and they issued a statement declaring that as far as they were concerned, the time had come to end the Victoria Park vigil (Apple, June 5).
Later, in response to the angry backlash from students and alumni, union lenders issued an apology of sorts saying they had not meant to disparage the memory of those who died in Beijing on June Fourth … but only the political implications of perpetuating the Hong Kong ritual. Mourning should be an individual matter. The political use to which the tragedy was being put in Hong Kong had continued long enough (SCMP, June 5, 6, 2017).
Nor is defying hallowed June Fourth tradition confined to the younger post-Occupy generation. In fact, the pioneers in that respect were an older generation veteran agitator, Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man 【黃毓敏】 and his middling-age radical Civic Passion friends.
In 2014 they held a counter-rally on June Fourth across town in Kowloon, far from what they denounced as the ritualistic ceremonies in Victoria Park. Wong claimed 7,000 in attendance at his event; police estimated 3,000.
Do remember June Fourth, he had said. But do not go to Victoria Park where pan-democrats are still begging for Beijing’s indulgence. They were doing so with their demand for a reversal of the subversive verdict that officials had proclaimed in 1989, to justify their use of military force in the square (June 6, 2014 post).
All things considered, then, “the lowest turnout since 2008” is probably not a cause for Hong Kong conservatives and Beijing officials to celebrate. Nor is the much proclaimed divide between Hong Kong’s first pre-1997 pro-democracy political generation and its post-2014 successor … at least not yet.
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on June 8, 2017.