June 4 slogan row may spell the death of patriotism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 1:36am

The annual June 4 commemoration used to be a simple event. It was to mark a brutal chapter in communist rule and to ensure its victims would never be forgotten. Not any more.

As with everything else in Hong Kong that has to do with politics, things are getting complicated this year. A row over what slogans to use may seem petty to outsiders, but it points to deeper fissures within the pan-democratic camp.

The Hong Kong Alliance In Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, once branded subversive by Beijing, has been organising the event ever since half a million people hit the streets in 1989. As part of its long-standing opposition to one-party rule on the mainland, it has its own version of democratic patriotism to compete with the state-sponsored nationalism espoused by Beijing. But even the central government respected the late Szeto Wah, an alliance founder who had always identified himself as a patriot and anti-communist.

This year the alliance came up with what must seem like an obvious slogan: "Love the country, Love the people, That's the Hong Kong spirit." This was to be followed by shouts of "vindication of June 4; never give up". To organisers like lawmaker and alliance chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, it was a straightforward slogan.

A democrat, he believes loving China does not mean loving the ruling party, but fighting for democracy. This patriotic way of thinking has been axiomatic to most old-time democrats. But Lee was forced to make a U-turn yesterday by announcing only the second part of the slogan on vindication would be used. Why?

The immediate cause is that Ding Zilin, founder of the Tiananmen Mothers support group, criticised the slogan as misguided. But the truth is that more and more local activists - especially younger ones - no longer share the alliance's or Szeto's patriotism. To them, China might as well be another country. Their activism stems not from love of country, and the need to change it, but to keep it away. They identify with Hong Kong and consider the fight for democracy a way to preserve or create a semi-autonomous city state.

This is a new political force that will challenge not only Beijing and the Hong Kong government, but also traditional democrats like Lee.