Wong Si-lam and Xin Lin | Radio Free Asia
Around 100,000 people turned out in Hong Kong on Sunday to commemorate the 28th anniversary of a June 4, 1989, military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student movement, in a mass rally and candlelight vigil that is an annual fixture in the former British colony.
Some estimates said 110,000 people turned up to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for the event, which had sparked doubts about the level of popular support for the event since a student boycott last year.
While Hong Kong is the only city on Chinese soil to commemorate the massacre in public, rifts have appeared among the younger generation of activists and students, many of whom boycotted Sunday’s rally.
Participants filled six football pitches, however, singing protest songs to commemorate the student-led movement.
A huge screen relayed footage of the bloodshed that ensued when then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to suppress the protests with tanks and machine guns on the night of June 3-4, 1989, as well as interviews with survivors and the relatives of victims.
The rally ended with a march to the Chinese government liaison office in Hong Kong, with protesters calling on Beijing to reappraise the events of 1989.
Albert Ho, who chairs the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, which organizes the event, said he was disappointed that students’ unions had dissociated themselves from the vigil, amid growing concerns that Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms are rapidly eroding under Chinese rule.
“Twenty years after the handover, the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party is putting pressure on movements for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, intervening in Hong Kong’s business, and bringing its dictatorship to Hong Kong,” Ho told reporters.
“But the Hong Kong people reject the invisible black hand of the Chinese Communists. We are staying at the forefront of the struggle for democracy, human rights, and freedom, and … an end to dictatorship,” he said.
As protesters chanted slogans calling on Beijing to reevaluate its official verdict of “counterrevolutionary rebellion” on the 1989 student movement, Hong Kong’s police force issued a yellow warning flag to warn protesters that they could be prosecuted for public order offenses.
But student groups hit out at the vigil for not taking a more aggressive line by calling for the punishment of those responsible for the crackdown.
Dwindling interest in mainland politics
Hong Kong University (HKU) student union president Wong Ching Tak said many younger people feel the memorial ceremony has become stale over the years, amid dwindling interest in mainland Chinese politics among Hong Kong’s youth.
“Our position is similar to that of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s student union, which has said in the past that it wants to approach the issue from a localist perspective and that the June 4 memorial has become very repetitive in recent years,” Wong said.
“There haven’t been many new ideas emerging, nor is there much room for progress, so it might be better just to call it a day,” he said.
“A lot of people still don’t really get why younger people don’t commemorate June 4 and have a different understanding of it.”
Growing talk of independence has coincided with the erosion of Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and judicial independence in recent years and a stalled timetable for full democracy.
Some 40 percent of young people support the idea, compared with around 70 percent who oppose it across all age groups, according to recent opinion polls.
Alliance secretary Lee Cheuk-yan said he was saddened by the students’ attitude, but could understand the emotions behind it.
“They are so alienated that they want to cut off any ties with mainland China,” Lee said. “But we are hoping that they won’t cut off ties to the struggle of the Chinese people for freedom and human rights.”
“We are all under the same regime, and we should all speak out and condemn that murderous regime.”
Former Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) student leader Tommy Cheung agreed.
“I think it’s a shame, because the June 4 massacre is lodged in the collective memory of Hong Kong people, and CUHK students actually played a role in the 1989 student movement,” Cheung said. “They even took part in the Beijing demonstrations, and gave their support to the student movement in its entirety.”
“I think it’s very inappropriate for the CUHK student union not to get involved [in the anniversary].”
Nationalism or personal choice?
But Chan Ho Tin, convener of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, said participation should be a matter of individual choice.
“To commemorate or not to commemorate: this is a question of personal freedom, and where you commemorate is also a matter of personal choice,” Chan said. “It is up to the people of Hong Kong to decide for themselves whether they have any reason to pay tribute to victims on June 4.”
“The Alliance has always taken the nationalistic view that blood is thicker than water and that we are all Chinese,” he said. “But I take a colonialist perspective: how can you expect the people of Hong Kong to love their colonial masters?”
Online commentators appeared to have mixed feelings, with some accused of writing “50 cents” propaganda for the Chinese government, and others supporting the vigil.
“The young people of 1989 were the best young generation we have ever had,” commented YouTube user Shawn_chan on a live stream of the event from the park, while another user wrote: “The people of mainland China thank the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.”
Hong Kong recently hit a new low in global press freedom rankings, amid growing concern over Beijing’s growing control over the city.
Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed the city 73rd in its 2017 Press Freedom Index, saying the city may be looking at “the beginning of the end of ‘one country, two systems’,” which promised the maintenance of its traditional freedoms under the terms of the handover agreement.
Meanwhile, nine high-profile figures from the city’s own 2014 pro-democracy movement will stand trial on public order charges on June 15, in what rights groups and pan-democratic politicians said is an ongoing purge of dissenting voices ahead of official celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the handover to Chinese rule on July 1.
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