On June 4, 1989 all eyes were focused on Beijing and the Chinese government’s use of the People’s Liberation Army to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square. They had been camped out there for weeks in an unprecedented show of student-led popular defiance. Throughout all the years since, the Chinese government has imposed official silence, a total ban on all public mention of those events, the casualties inflicted by the use of military force against unarmed civilians, and the suppression of China’s own 1980s democracy movement that had evolved from the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution decade and culminated in the occupation of the square.

Many protest leaders fled the country via Hong Kong where the events of June Fourth probably had a more traumatic impact than they did anywhere else outside China. The crisis could not have come at a worse time since the city was just then preparing for the 1997 return from British to Chinese rule.  June Fourth reignited all the old fears about communist oppression.

The practice began immediately, in 1990, of commemorating the date by paying tribute to the dead of Tiananmen Square and the custom persisted after 1997.

Despite his best efforts, the new government’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, failed to persuade Hong Kongers to “lay down the burden of June fourth,” as he put it. But he only implored and admonished.

His government did not to enforce the national ban, allowing Hong Kong to become the only territory under Chinese rule that enjoys the right to remember this painful episode from China’s political past with large-scale public commemorations. Small memorials are sometimes held in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, but they are discreetly low-key.

Hong Kong’s elaborate candlelight vigil has been held in Victoria Park on the night of June Fourth every year since 1990. Some who move in official circles, including Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive Carrie Lam, have even taken to boasting that it proves Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms remain intact … in a darkening political atmosphere that suggests otherwise.

ATTENDANCE: Why and Why Not?

For Hong Kong itself, the vigil has become a kind of litmus test used by sympathizers and detractors alike to assess the public’s political mood. Do Hong Kongers still care enough 29 years later, to exercise their freedom of political expression in this way? Is attendance up or down? Who comes out and why?

If attendance is up, that might mean any one of several things: continuing generalized defiance, or dissatisfaction over the roadblock Beijing has thrown up against the long-promised goal of democratic elections, plus many other accumulating political grievances. Attendance is also up on ten-year anniversaries; and when special tributes are in order as with the illness and death of key leader Szeto Wah when there were overflow crowds; or in hopeful anticipation of some new challenge in the offing.

If attendance is down, that might indicate growing public acceptance of Chinese rule. Or it might simply reflect cynicism, or that people are becoming resigned to Beijing’s meddling in local political life and see no point in continuing to resist.

Or it might mean not resignation but total rejection. This follows from the new … since about 2011 … ideas about city-state autonomy and independence. According to their adherents, these advocacies negate the need to commemorate 1989 because June Fourth and Tiananmen Square signify an identity of interests between Hong Kong and the mainland that need not exist. This line of reasoning is for those so alienated that they want to pull down the shutters, lock the gates, and reject all reminders of Hong Kong’s cross-border associations.

For one reason or another, the indicators this year were all in negative territory. The University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program (HKUPOP) carries on with its custom, begun in 1993, of taking the public pulse every year with a pre-June Fourth survey. It’s designed to assess Hong Kongers’ views about human rights in China and the June Fourth crackdown. But the survey reflects the identity of interests between Hong Kong and the mainland that autonomy advocates today want to disavow.

Attitudes this year, more than two decades after the survey was designed, were at near record lows … as though respondents were not impressed by the state of human rights in China but were also losing interest in June Fourth itself.

Some 47% thought human rights conditions in China had improved since 1989. But that was the second lowest view of conditions in China since polling began. Respondents who thought conditions had actually worsened since 1989 were, at 28%, the most since the survey began.

Another key question was about vindication for the victims, that is, reversing Beijing’s negative “counter-revolutionary” verdict on the Tiananmen Square occupation. The verdict was officially used to justify the military crackdown. That particular political crime no longer exists, although its contemporary equivalent is almost as bad: subverting state power and related crimes.

One of the lead slogans for June Fourth memorial activities has always been vindication or “reverse the verdict.” But his year’s HKU survey showed that only 54% of respondents cared enough to advocate reversing the official verdict and exonerating the Tiananmen offenders, with 24% actually against. As recently as 2013, these totals had been 62.8% and 15.7%, respectively (Apple, May 30, 2018). *

And this year another poll also gave campaigners cause for concern. It, too, was conducted by HKUPOP but commissioned by Anson Chan’s Project Citizens Foundation. She is a former top civil servant who has since become a senior member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp. This poll fell into a trap so familiar that it’s surprising democracy campaigners are still laying it for themselves. But by asking a series of questions about what people value most, inevitably the issues that impact lives most directly receive top billing.

Respondents were asked about matters of public concern and to rank them on a scale of zero to 10. Public order, rule of law, and a corruption-free public environment were the top scorers, all ranking 9.2, with stability and freedom next. Democracy came in dead last with an 8.0 ranking (South China Morning Post, Apple, HKEconJournal, June 1). **

These are the kinds of questions the old colonial government used to ask in order to rationalize its failure to introduce political reforms while prioritizing law-and-order. The answers are not too surprising since Hong Kongers are not accustomed to electing their own government and remain unfamiliar with the imperatives of that  tradition.

All of which probably helps explain why Beijing leaders think they can get away with reneging on their original Basic Law promises about allowing universal suffrage elections here.

In contrast, what happened on June Fourth this year helps explain why Beijing will probably not be able to get away with its growing effort to curb Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression.

But most negative of all was the message coming from the educated younger generation. The student unions representing Hong Kong’s main institutions of higher learning decided against formal participation in the June Fourth vigil. They have done the same in recent years, but this year they went a step further and decided not even to bother organizing any alternative events to mark the day. There was no point, they said, because there is nothing more to discuss.

They referred to a growing view among the younger generation that as Hong Kongers, they have no particular interest in what happened on June Fourth or in the cause of Chinese political reform that had motivated Chinese students in 1989. None of that has anything to do with Hong Kong today, say the students (Apple, Standard, May 31; SCMP, June 1, 4).

This flies in the face of Hong Kong  campaigners’ original 1990s view that Hong Kong cannot democratize if China does not do likewise. On the annual HKU survey, 31% of respondents said they felt Hong Kongers have no responsibility for advancing the cause of democracy in China, the highest proportion since the survey began in 1993.  A majority, 56%, nevertheless answered affirmatively that Hong Kongers should maintain a continuing interest in that cause.

In fact, the younger generation’s new level of alienation dovetails neatly with the new ultimatum coming from Beijing. This concerns one key demand that June Fourth campaigners always raise with their slogan to “end one-party dictatorship” 【結束一黨專政】.

This year Beijing officials have gone out of their way to say that Hong Kongers can stand in the park and shout the slogan as much as they like. But that’s where the line must be drawn around Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression because the slogan is subversive of China’s Communist Party-led government. Those who insist on exercising that particular right will risk being barred from standing as candidates in future Hong Kong elections (May 23, 2018 post).

Even the weather bureau seemed intent on contributing to the gloomy mood with a prediction of rain likely on the evening of June Fourth!


Still, if anyone was influenced by Beijing’s ultimatum and all the negative indicators, it wasn’t readily apparent on any measure. Back at the beginning, in 1990, before the police were as diligent as they are today with their underestimates, a “full house” in Victoria Park on June Fourth, with standing room only on all the soccer pitches, was estimated by the police to contain 80,000 people (Apple, SingTao, June 5, 2018).

Those of us with memories that go back that far can attest to the fact that on that first night, all the soccer pitches were full … just as they were this year. Not overflowing as on special occasions but a full house all the same.   Nevertheless, as if by magic, 80,000 became 17,000, according to this year’s police estimate. Organizers claimed 115,000.

And there must have been some aspiring potential election candidates among them. So, it’s going to mean big headaches for election officials if they actually try to enforce Beijing’s latest injunction and disqualify candidates for shouting the slogan. This is because instead of being shunted to the sidelines as happened a few years ago, it became a central feature of this year’s event.

The rain stopped just before the rally began at 8:00 p.m. But the ground was too wet for sitting so most everyone remained standing throughout and it would be impossible to say who shouted out the slogan and who didn’t when the call came for a rousing chant to “end one-party dictatorship.”

Organizers were as always leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. It was agreed that “end one-party dictatorship” must not be dropped from the agenda. Current Alliance leader Albert Ho Chun-yan 【 何俊仁】laments the alienation of today’s youth but remains as committed to the cause as he was in 1989. He says both China and Hong Kong should have democracy so by definition that would herald an end to one-party dictatorship (Apple, May 29).

There was some controversy a few years ago, in 2010-11, over the slogan. Critics claimed the Democratic Party, then chaired by Albert Ho, was going soft on the slogan in an effort to placate Beijing and possibly win concessions on political reform (June 14, 2011).  But not this year.

The lead slogans remained defiant and subversive: “Mourn June Fourth,” “Resist Authoritarianism,” “Release Democracy Movement Protesters,” “Reverse the Verdict on the 1989 Democracy Movement,” “Demand Accountability for the Massacre,” End One-Party Dictatorship,” “Build a Democratic China.”

The speeches, memorials, and tributes to the dead were all the same, and the sea of candlelight on the darkened playing fields just as effective.

Critics insist it has become a ritualistic exercise held only for show. But they did sponsor a few alternative events on the sidelines just the same. One was a collection booth at the entrance to the park, set up for the Justice Defense Fund, to help with legal expenses for the February 2016 Mong Kok “separatist” rioters. Many are just now being sentenced to prison terms.  The fund is for the inevitable gap  when legal aid and pro bono services are not enough to cover court costs and lawyers’ fees.  Another sideline event was a discussion group organized nearby.

Yet another was a small illegal gathering across the harbor in Kowloon, attended by Hong Kong independence advocates. It was illegal because they had been denied permission but went ahead and rallied briefly anyway (HKFree Press, May 4, June 4).

As for Beijing’s new resolve about disqualifying prospective election candidates who stand in the park and shout about ending one-party dictatorship, the real test is soon to come. First up will be Teacher Lau Siu-lai 【劉 小麗】 and veteran labor organizer as well as long-time Alliance leader Lee Cheuk-yan 【李卓人】.

Teacher Lau is one of the Legislative Councilors disqualified in the 2016-17 oath taking saga. She is planning to try and win back her Kowloon West seat in the coming by-election. But just in case she is disqualified, her back-up Plan B is Lee Cheuk-yan. He has agreed to run in the district if she cannot, although Lee actually has more political strikes against him than she does.

Besides taking her oath-of-office in an improper manner two years ago, Teacher Lau led her group of supporters in the preparatory warm-up march two weeks ago. This is always held on a Sunday, before the main June Fourth vigil in the park. The march is usually small with just over a thousand people. But this year a special stand-alone banner demanding an “end to one-party dictatorship” was among those leading the procession … with Teacher Lau and her group following not far behind (Apple, Ming Pao, May 28).  And right on cue, the patriotic vilification campaign against her has already begun.

As one of the original 1989 Alliance leaders, Lee Cheuk-yan has been present at just about every demonstration held ever since. He would also be among the least likely  to consider recanting in order to win Beijing’s approval for his qualification as an election candidate.


* https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/release/release1530.html

** http://projectcitizens.hk/en/content/“public-perception-survey-hong-kong’s-characteristics”-press-conference


Posted by Suzanne Pepper on June 11, 2018.





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