Hong Kong activists seek to heal generational divide

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Originally published by Nikkei Asian Review on June 5, 2017

HONG KONG — Although under the sovereignty of China, Hong Kong continues to keep the light burning in commemorating the Communist government’s brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, when hundreds were killed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The traditional candle light vigil was held again this year by veteran democratic activists, although major university organizations and some younger activists shunned the event for a third consecutive year.

But the young and old protesters are united in resisting an increasingly hardline policy by Beijing on democracy and human rights, which is threatening civil freedoms in the territory.

According to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organizer of the annual candlelight vigil since 1989, attendance this year amounted to 110,000 people. Albert Ho Chun-yan, the Alliance chairman and veteran pro-democracy activist, expressed gratitude to the people who showed up at the Victoria Park on a muggy Sunday night. The turnout was 25,000 less than last year and the lowest since 2008 when only 48,000 showed up, but Ho stressed that it is “by no means easy to sustain a movement on such a scale for such a long period of time — 28 years.”

The police, which usually give lower figures than the organizers, said attendance reached 18,000 at the rally’s peak, the same number it said that attended in 2008.

A major reason for the declining turnout was less participation by the young. Student unions from several universities decided not to hold any commemorations this year. Even for those who did, they excluded candle lights and singing from their program.

Some of the students, who were at the forefront of the 2014 Umbrella Movement that unsuccessfully pressed for more democratic reforms in Hong Kong, are skeptical whether emotional gatherings can change the situation. They are also critical of the alliance’s objective to build a democratic China, saying that local democratization should come before national development. For the third straight year, University of Hong Kong students organized alternative rallies to “rethink” the meaning of the June 4th crackdown in Beijing.

University events

But the university’s forum, which was attended by nearly 400 people, scheduled the event so that it would not clash with the main vigil, which started hours later on Sunday. Wong Ching-tak, the university’s student union president, said the arrangement was meant to provide flexibility to participants rather than lend support to the main vigil. “It has to do with our identity as Hong Kongers, not Chinese. Unless there is a major change in this perception, there’s little chance we will go to Victoria Park again,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Speaking at the forum, pro-independence activist Andy Chan Ho-tin expressed concerns that remembering the June 4th crackdown had become a form of “political correctness” in Hong Kong. “Everyone should have his own free will — it shouldn’t be seen as a crime if you are not joining,” said Chan, who is from the Hong Kong National Party. “Even if you are joining, I hope it’s not because of your fears of social punishment.”

A recent opinion poll conducted by the university showed that only 58% of Hong Kong’s population felt a sense of responsibility to promote democratic development on the mainland, four percentage points lower than last year. The disapproval rate for marking the June 4th crackdown rose to 27%, the highest since 2006.

Pro-democracy veteran Lee Cheuk-yan became the first representative from the Alliance to take part in the university’s event. While Lee insisted traditional slogans calling for an end to China’s one-party rule should be kept, he added that the Alliance will review the vigil’s format to encourage youth participation.

“We’ve been walking on a tight rope in recent years. Perhaps a better way is to keep our format simple and original,” Lee said, calling on participants to focus on common interests. “China’s authoritarian regime remains our biggest enemy.”

Political commentator Joseph Lian Yi-zheng said the main vigil should be more inclusive of different voices in the spectrum of pro-democracy movements, including those of pro-independence activists.

“June 4th is not just about commemoration. Moving ahead, it’s also about warning people against political threats from Beijing,” Lian said, suggesting the need for keeping the slogans and spirit of the main vigil relevant. “June 4th has been an important resource in our fight for democracy, and it will be a huge loss if it’s fading away.”

Vigil boycott

The Student Union of the Chinese University, however, completely rejected any association with the June 4th vigil this year, although seven colleges under the school, which runs on a federal system, organized an afternoon forum on Sunday to discuss the merits of commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown.

“We don’t quite agree that June 4th has now lost its meaning or is leading to nowhere. June 4th could still be inspiring for Hong Kong’s democratic development and is worth discussing,” said Anthony Suen Ho-yin, representative of Chinese University’s New Asia College.

Suen said the college respected the decision of the university student union, but would boycott the traditional vigil because of its adherence to rituals and nationalistic principles. He claimed that about 200 people had joined the forum and more than 800 viewers had watched the live stream. “It fulfils our expectation,” said Suen.

Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, leader of the liberal Civic Party and a lawmaker, questioned whether boycotting the June 4th commemoration could help Hong Kong’s democratic development.

“A lot of people attend [the Alliance’s event] because they care about the candle light,” said Yeung at the student union forum. “It tells the world that there are people who still care, who are still watching the Chinese Communist Party from a moral perspective.” He also believed commemorating June 4th would prevent the crackdown from being whitewashed or rewritten.

“June 4th is relevant not only to China, Hong Kong, but the rest of the world,” said Nathan Law Kwun-chung, chairman of the pro-democratic party, Demosisto. “In the past, people felt that China was a reclusive, authoritarian and suspicious regime. But as its power grows, people stop feeling it is a model to be rejected … More and more countries are kowtowing to [China], and turning to it as an alternative to democracy.”

“It is therefore even more pressing for us to uphold some strong evidence or history to let people know that this country — even with strong economic prowess and it seemingly playing a leadership role — represents a political regime that we should absolutely oppose, that the regime is stained with blood,” said Law, who emerged from the 2014 Umbrella Movement and became one of the young activists who won a seat in the Hong Kong legislative council elections last year.

“June 4th is the most telling evidence of how despicable this regime is,” Law added. “It reminds the world that the human rights issue in China is not resolved.”

Historical memories

This view is echoed by human rights watchdog organizations, which are recording human rights abuses by China even as its global clout rises. “While [Chinese] President Xi Jinping preaches openness on the world stage, his government buries the truth about the Tiananmen Massacre through silence, denial and persecution of those who mark the occasion,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Until Beijing reverses course and owns up to its past atrocities, Xi’s calls have little credibility,” she added.

Frances Eve, Hong Kong-based researcher at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) , told the NAR that under Xi’s reign, “Chinese activists, lawyers, NGOs workers, journalists and dissidents have been disappeared, detained, tortured and imprisoned on vague accusations that they have ‘endangered national security.'” She urged old and young Hong Kong activists to overcome their disputes as “Beijing benefits when democracy advocates are divided…Solidarity and support is an effective way to counter government propaganda.”

Not all university students ignored the candle light vigil. Yvonne Chan Yan-woon, a 22-year-old student at Lingnan University, told the NAR that her generation feels “they have their own ways to remember this event.” She skipped attending last year’s June 4th event, but she returned this year because “we have the duty to pass on [the memory] because it’s not in our textbooks.”

Mick Tang, who has been participating in the vigil for over a decade, brought along his young son and wife because the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government “wants to let people forget about what happened. We have to let people know, like my son.”

The Alliance’s Ho admitted to reporters after the vigil that there was “much more for us to do” to attract the young. “We need to maintain a closer relationship and need to exert more persuasion to the younger generation,” he said.

Beijing remains steadfast in its view on the June 4th crackdown. Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, reiterated Beijing’s position on Friday, describing the incident as a “political disturbance that took place in the late 1980s” and it has “long ago reached a clear conclusion.” She went on to say that developments in past years have “sufficiently explained the problem” and urged people to pay attention to “positive changes” in Chinese society.

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