Broken bond

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 June, 2010, 12:00am

Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown, organisers of the annual candle-light vigil claimed 150,000 people took part, with thousands more physically unable to enter Victoria Park because of a lack of space. That was the highest turnout since 1990, the first anniversary of the suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Beijing, when troops and tanks were called in.

The police, however, put the turnout last year at 62,800, less than half the figure cited by organisers. As someone who was present, the higher figure seems totally credible. Every available inch of ground was taken and latecomers simply couldn't get into the park.

Everyone expected the turnout to be substantially lower this year, but the organisers reported that, to their surprise, it was just as high as last year. And the police gave an even higher figure for this year's turnout, with a figure of 113,000 people, making it the highest on record. Whatever the estimate, the turnout was clearly very high. Twenty-one years may have gone by, but Hongkongers have not forgotten the massacre.

There was another significant development this year. An organiser, Lee Cheuk-yan, said 60 to 70 per cent of participants now 'are young people aged below 30'. The torch has been passed to a new generation.

Things are a little different on the mainland, where the authorities do not allow any public mention of the 1989 events, either in the press or on the internet. And yet, even on the mainland, many people have not forgotten. While 'June 4' is a term that is taboo, some ingenious bloggers have attempted to get around it by using the date 'May 35'. On the Chinese search engine Baidu, there were reportedly 3,600 results for 'May 35' while there were 7.5 million results on Google, in Chinese.

Even as Beijing tightened security for the approach of June 4, a cartoon appeared on the website of the Southern Metropolis Daily which showed a little boy drawing a line of tanks on a blackboard with a man standing in front. Clearly, even on the mainland, people remember.

As to why so many people packed into Victoria Park this year, a poll conducted by Ming Pao of 336 people attending the candle-light vigil showed that 61.6 per cent thought freedom to commemorate the June 4 incident was at risk.

No doubt, this was because of the widely publicised police seizure in Times Square of two statues erected by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, modelled on the Goddess of Democracy statue created by students in 1989 and subsequently crushed by tanks.

The controversy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong - where a ban on the permanent display of a Goddess of Democracy statue on campus was announced - added fuel to the fire. There is a lesson here for government and university authorities: never give the impression of a crackdown - the result will always be counterproductive. A government cannot afford to lose the trust of its people, and a university administration that of its students. Once that trust is gone, it will not be easy to recover.

That is something Beijing, too, must understand. As Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said to mark this year's 21st anniversary of the crackdown, a government needs the trust of its people. 'When conflict between a government and its people ends in bloodshed,' he said, referring to events in Taiwan as well as on the mainland, 'it is the government that must take principal responsibility, for it is the government that wields the power of the state.'

He added: 'A government depends for its very existence on the people's trust. When a government turns its weaponry against the people, it is not just the people who are injured. The bond of trust between the people and the government is also harmed, and it takes a long time to repair.'

Beijing should heed these words. After all, it can see that, 21 years later, the government and the people still don't trust each other.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator