After 23 years, Hong Kong remembers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, 12:00am



A sea of candles lit up Victoria Park earlier this month as a record number of mourners gave public voice to their grief. It is China's only large-scale event to remember those killed in the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.

Organisers say 180,000 people took part in the vigil, but police put the number at 85,000.

Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organised the vigil, said numbers were up 30,000 on last year and that it was 'encouraging to see more mainlanders and young people' joining the 90-minute memorial event.

For 18-year-old Mok Cheuk-ngai, the candlelight vigil was his first.

Mok, who moved from Guangdong two years ago, said he knew almost nothing about what happened in Tiananmen Square 23 years ago until he started researching the incident after arriving in Hong Kong. 'I didn't even know something big happened on June 4,' he said. 'I was shocked when I realised the Beijing government could hide such a big event.'

Fang Zheng, whose legs were crushed under a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, told the crowd he wanted to see Beijing accept and recognise the democracy movement in his lifetime.

'Hong Kong is really an ocean of love and conscience. It was stunning to see the sea of candlelight,' Fang, 46, said from his wheelchair. 'Your participation shows that you have not forgotten the movement 23 years ago. I have to thank you all on behalf of the victims.'

Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 student movement, told campaigners in a video message 'it is worth persisting'. As an example of what can be done, he cited Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now a lawmaker after years of struggle against the government.

The issues

Mainlanders discover June 4

The June 4 crackdown has always been a hot topic of discussion among people in Hong Kong. It is discussed in school history lessons and among the general public.

As the central government allows more mainlanders to come to Hong Kong, it not only benefits the local tourism industry. Now they can read Hong Kong newspapers and talk with Hongkongers about June 4, and gain a whole new insight into the issue.

'Sensitive' books on June 4 that have no hope of being published on the mainland are displayed prominently in Hong Kong's bookshops. They are bought and read by many inquisitive mainland tourists.

Recent years have also seen a new phenomenon: more mainlanders, either tourists or students at Hong Kong's universities, are coming to the annual candlelight vigil.

Li Runzhou, 38, from Zhejiang province, has visited Hong Kong many times, but he was attending the vigil for the first time this year.

'In the past, I didn't realise the country was so bad,' he said. 'There are so many problems in education, medical services and people's livelihoods. It's very bad on the mainland. Those who were born in the 1990s or later know absolutely nothing about the crackdown.'

Although mainlanders are not free to discuss June 4 as openly as Hong Kong people, it is clear that many of them want to know about it.

Mainland media get involved

Voices from the mainland urging reflection on the June 4 crackdown - and accountability for those responsible for the tragic events that day in 1989 - are being heard more frequently in Hong Kong. A good example of this is a new book based on conversations with former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, who voiced his 'regrets' over the violence, saying it could have been avoided if handled properly.

Journalists on the mainland are increasingly interested in the topic. This year, some mainland reporters - some of whom are studying in Hong Kong and some of whom are touring the city - were keen to find out more about June 4.

On the day, they bought several local newspapers to read reports from different perspectives. They also joined the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park.

Many of these journalists work for state-owned media on the mainland, and their openness towards June 4 may help more mainlanders learn about the issue from another angle.

Although journalists cannot yet speak freely about June 4 on the mainland, being able to discuss the issue in Hong Kong is a welcome experience for them.

A university researcher from Shenzhen, who was attending the Victoria Park vigil for the first time, said he felt Hong Kong enjoyed much more freedom than the mainland.

'I want to know more about the crackdown,' he said. 'Knowing so little now, it's difficult to make a fair judgment on who's right and who's wrong.'


To a group of 64 Hong Kong journalists, the summer of 1989 will forever be engraved in their minds.

They spent days and nights in Tiananmen Square, covering the massive democratic movement, and they were shocked and saddened by the military crackdown they witnessed. Less than a month after returning to Hong Kong, they compiled a book, People Will Not Forget, based on their experiences.

The speed at which they wrote the book set a publishing record and it has remained one of the city's best-sellers.

Its 64 authors have moved on - some are now senior executives in business, others are in government and many are still in the media - yet each year, around June 4, key members of the group get together to remember the events of 1989.

For the once young and passionate reporters, their meeting's theme is always the same: to wish for an official justification of the democratic movement.

The mainland and Hong Kong are integrated in many ways, but June 4 is another matter. The majority of Hongkongers strongly believe that Beijing has to make a fair judgment of 1989's democratic movement one day - and the sooner Beijing does that, the better for China.

Whether the central government understands Hongkongers' mixed feelings or not, it needs to tolerate the city's remembrance of the events in Tiananmen if Hong Kong is to be a shining example of the 'one country, two systems' policy.

Former premier Zhu Rongji was once asked by a Hong Kong reporter whether Beijing would ban the commemoration of June 4 after the 1997 handover. He promised that as long as the protesters followed Hong Kong's relevant laws and did not breach the Basic Law, 'you Hong Kong people can do whatever you want'.

So it has been a tradition for the past 23 years that, rain or shine, candles are lit every June 4 in that park in Causeway Bay named after Britain's Queen Victoria.

Rumours say that voices backing a re-examination of June 4 have been rising within the Chinese Communist Party. There has even been speculation of a message from Premier Wen Jiabao himself backing the idea of taking another look at that historic event.

In this sense, Hong Kong plays a unique role in the debate. As June 4 is still a taboo topic on the mainland, Hong Kong is a viable conduit for the mainland's 'testing messages' to reach the outside world. As the Chinese proverb goes, 'ducks can feel the early spring warmth in the water'.

When more of these messages are voiced in Hong Kong, does it mean that the city will be the first to sense a possible change in Beijing's attitude towards the democratic movement? Does it mean the day for a reassessment is getting closer?

We can't say for sure, but let us hope that day will come soon.

Tammy Tam


'I have come to talk to people, especially young people, so they can know the truth about the June 4 killings. The most effective weapon to fight the communist regime is to refuse to forget what the government wants us to forget, and to refuse to forget what the government has done.'

Tiananmen activist Fang Zheng

'I hope our central government will further free up its mind, deal with the issue in a timely and fair manner, and give the public a satisfying reply that will stand the test of history.'

Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng

'Now there is no clear definition about the nature of the incident. So what, exactly, is to be vindicated? I need to think about it.'

Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress

'This is my first time. I believe June 4 must be vindicated because the government was wrong to kill its own people. They should not hide the truth any more.'

Coco Chen, 22, University of Hong Kong student from Jiangxi province who attended this year's vigil