Twenty-five years after he played a leading role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, exiled activist Zhou Fengsuo has joined another student-led mass movement—in Hong Kong.
Zhou camped out overnight alongside hundreds of others occupying a major highway close to government headquarters in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district after arriving in the semiautonomous Chinese city on Sunday.
His arrival at the site prompted strong emotions for Zhou and Occupy Central protesters alike, many of whom weren’t yet born during the 1989 mass occupation of Tiananmen Square.
But the bloodshed that followed when then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping sent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in with machine-guns and tanks to regain control of the capital has been commemorated by huge crowds in Hong Kong every year since it happened.
Hong Kong, which has maintained considerable freedom of speech and expression since its 1997 handover to Chinese rule, remains the only city under Beijing’s rule where public mourning of those who died in the crackdown is permitted.
Earlier this year, pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong set up a small, privately run museum dedicated to the movement and the massacre of June 4, 1989.
Return of support
On Monday, Zhou paid a visit to the museum in the bustling shopping district of Tsimshatsui, telling RFA that he wanted to return Hong Kong’s long-running support for his generation’s bid for more democracy.
“The biggest support we had on the Square in 1989 was from Hong Kong, and I have always wanted to help Hong Kong people fight for democracy and universal suffrage,” Zhou said. “So I am here to show my support.”
He said the police use of tear gas and pepper spray on unarmed protesters wielding only umbrellas—giving the “Umbrella Movement” its name—had also motivated him to travel from his home in the United States.
“To see the Hong Kong police firing tear gas and threatening them with [tear-gas] guns, made me think of 1989,” Zhou said. “I felt that now was the time to come and stand alongside them.”
Occupy protesters are still encamped on three main sites in the former British colony, but numbers have dwindled from a peak of hundreds of thousands after tear gas was deployed on Sept. 28, and especially since talks between protesters and the government reached an apparent stalemate last month.
Anti-Occupy protesters say they are gaining wider support among the general public, who have said they wish to see a return to business as usual.
Meanwhile, protesters face the possibility of forced eviction from their campsites, should police move to clear barricades from the highway following civil injunctions brought by the transportation industry.
‘Victory already won’
Zhou said he believes Occupy protesters have already won a huge victory, however.
“This is a very hard road to travel,” Zhou said. “Of course it is. And I think it’ll take a lot more time. But the future is in their hands.”
“For this generation to have achieved such a huge awakening is already in itself a great victory,” he added.
“I believe that in 20 years time, these young people will be the leaders of a democratic Hong Kong, not those elderly people who side with Beijing,” Zhou said.
Zhou echoed what analysts say is Beijing’s greatest fear: that a successful democratic movement in Hong Kong could spark similar movements across the internal border in mainland China.
“The liberal atmosphere of the Occupy Central site comes as a huge shock to people who live under the violently repressive rule of the Communist Party,” he said.
“I ran into four or five friends from mainland China in Admiralty on Sunday, and they were enormously excited about it,” Zhou said.
To date, mainland Chinese authorities have detained more than 100 people for openly voicing support for the Occupy Central movement, according to Chinese rights activists and lawyers.
One Chinese netizen had circulated a photograph of the Occupy protests with the caption, “The last bastion of Chinese democracy,” Zhou said.
The movement seemed on Monday to further lose momentum amid ongoing wrangles between its founders, student leaders, and pan-democratic lawmakers over whether to stage mass resignations and prompt by-elections, or even call for a dissolution of the territory’s Legislative Council (LegCo).
Joshua Wong, head of the academic activist group Scholarism, said via Twitter on Monday that the Occupy movement “should return to its original principle” and get closer to the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people with another referendum.
“We must … run another referendum targeting the Aug. 31 decision of the National People’s Congress (NPC),” Wong wrote.
“We should put our political energy into a ballot on Umbrella Square.”
A June referendum garnered some 700,000 votes in favor of some form of public nomination of candidates in 2017 elections for the chief executive.
While the NPC said that all of Hong Kong’s five million voters will cast a ballot in that poll, they will only be able to choose between two or three candidates pre-selected by a pro-Beijing committee, a plan dismissed by protesters as “fake universal suffrage.”
Five student leaders said on Monday they plan to travel to Beijing on Saturday, ahead of next week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leadership summit, in a bid to plead their case with Chinese officials.
However, it is unclear whether they will be allowed into mainland China, as officials have previously barred entry to activists and government critics.