Democracy hope alive, whatever the numbers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am

A low turnout tonight would not mean that Tiananmen has been forgotten, say commentators

In the 17 years since June 4 inspired Hong Kong people to honour those who died in Tiananmen Square, the attendance at the annual candle-light vigil in Victoria Park has varied according to political and social events.

With the threat of showers tonight, organisers and political commentators say that a low turnout would not mean that people have become apathetic about democratic change on the mainland or have forgotten about June 4.

People still want to be involved in decision-making and yearn for direct elections for the Legislative Council and the chief executive, according to Michael DeGolyer, director of Hong Kong Baptist University's Hong Kong Transition Project.

'These are fundamental values that may not get people out in the rain for the June 4 commemoration,' Dr DeGolyer said. 'But you can bet that if there is a move to take away freedoms, there will be hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, just like in 2003 [when 500,000 people demonstrated on July 1 against Article 23, the Basic Law's proposed anti-subversion clause].

'Anyone who interprets a low turnout on June 4 as a sign of people no longer caring about human rights and only about money is entirely wrong.'

Dr DeGolyer's project has surveyed the attitudes of those going to the June 4 vigil in Victoria Park since the event began in 1990.

He said it was possible that tonight's vigil would attract a low turnout because of rain and an absence of recent gross human rights violations on the mainland.

After the bloody crackdown in Beijing, attendance has been driven by contemporary events, Dr DeGolyer said.

These included former governor Lord Patten's democratic reform package (1992), concern over the handover (1997), Sars (2003), bird flu (1997, 2001, 2002), Article 23 (2003), and journalist Ching Cheong's detention last year.

Unionist legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, a co-founder and organiser of the vigil, fondly remembers the 82,000 that gathered for the 15th anniversary in 2004 - a turnout bolstered by the previous year's concerns over Article 23.

Despite the influence of current events, Mr Lee said people's basic reasons for going to Victoria Park on June 4 remained unchanged.

'It's about freedom, and corruption and democracy,' he said. 'China is still very corrupt, and there is still no freedom or democratic change. There is some degree of freedom economically, but never on politics or human rights.

'The aspirations of the students have still not been met after 17 years, and everything is still very relevant.'

The behaviour of those attending the remembrance had evolved, he said. The impassioned cries and weeping of the earlier years have given way to family picnics as the student activists of the '90s grew up and had families.

Recent years have also seen the departure of a key member of the commemoration's organisers.

Lau Chin-shek, who is pursuing a conciliatory line with Beijing, unionist, now seldom attends meetings of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.

But Mr Lau, once a vocal critic of the Communist Party and the June 4 crackdown, still attended the vigil even though he had chosen not to be elected as a standing member of the alliance, Mr Lee said.

'It was a bit regrettable,' Mr Lee said. 'Not that he is wrong in choosing dialogue, but in the public eye it seems as if he is not standing up for the cause he supported for years.'