Tiananmen Square crackdown

Hongkongers' eternal struggle with June 4 and Chinese rule

Keane Shum says as Hongkongers reflect on the events in Tiananmen 25 years ago, the city is still wrestling with the contradictions brought about through benefiting from, and at the same time resenting, Chinese rule

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 5:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 5:26am

The first time you go to the June 4 vigil at Victoria Park, expect to be unprepared for a number of things. The difficulty of affixing, with dripping wax, a candle to a conical paper cup. The funeral rites that without warning evince the hardest kind of loss, of a parent losing a child. And the cognitive dissonance triggered by the act of memorialising students whose deaths led in part to Hong Kong becoming the city it is today.

I was six years old in 1989. My mother worked in Hong Kong for a multinational chemical company whose business, like all business in China, evaporated after June 4. Two months later, my mother was among the first businesspeople to re-enter the mainland and attempt to resuscitate foreign trade. The deal she ultimately secured was the only one her company completed in China that year, and it set her apart from her peers and on a course of career advancement that underwrote my liberal arts and legal education. I am today able to specialise in human rights law as a result of the opportunity that the June 4 crackdown gave my mother.

This is the paradox we can never seem to escape in Hong Kong, forever and at once benefiting from and resenting Chinese - and, before that, British- rule. When the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, we were eight short years from the same tanks rolling across the Shenzhen River, and the predictive trauma of that moment is not only what brings many of us back to Victoria Park each year; it was what sent thousands of us to Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

And yet China today, despite its many shortcomings, is as uplifting a story as one could have hoped for 25 years ago. As my mother's career did for my education, so China's development has obviously underwritten Hong Kong's continued prosperity. Many of those who left after 1989 came back, and some will spend one night this week in a park, lighting candles and singing songs.

June 4 is far from the only trigger of our congenital cognitive dissonance. In months other than June, and years other than quarter-century anniversaries, Hong Kong seems chronically on the verge of existential crises.

The stabbing of Kevin Lau Chun-to has put our freedom of expression on death watch. The thousands of people who may or may not occupy Central in the coming months are to some a grave threat to our rule of law; to others, they are the last stand for the democracy we were promised. Our ever-shrinking harbour makes even our name increasingly obsolete, and a child urinating on the street or in the MTR - and the videotaped backlash - portends the end of all common decency. We are becoming, so we fear, just another Chinese city.

That insecurity, our endless struggle between asserting our Chineseness on the one hand and our cosmopolitanism on the other, is wallpapered across the many billboards and trams that brand ourselves "Asia's world city", and it mirrors my own.

I am simultaneously proud and embarrassed of my international school education, both elitist about my native English and ashamed about my inadequate Chinese. As a teacher of mine recently pointed out, this is the classic struggle of a child of immigrants, which is what I am and what one might also call Hong Kong. Our city, with its mixed and disputed parentage, has long been a diaspora unto itself, its distance from the motherland measured by the oceans that for decades lay between our ways of life. The Shenzhen River, Eileen Chang Ai-ling once wrote, separated the realms of the living and the dead.

Today, we inhabit much the same realm as our cousins across the border. We know our future is tied up in theirs, and theirs in ours. What we haven't been able to figure out is why our long history - our only history - of straddling divides has not bequeathed us a well-balanced city, but rather one constantly on edge, to the point that I cannot even wait calmly in line for a taxi without keeping a watchful eye out for queue cutters.

There are many difficult historical and political nuances about the authenticity of our Chineseness, our relationship with colonialism and about June 4. I am as conflicted about these as Hong Kong has always been. I know that had I been a student in Beijing in the spring of 1989, I would have been in Tiananmen Square. I know I only feel that way because of the doors of higher education that the events of June 4 opened for me. But whether you believe Deng Xiaoping made the right call that night 25 years ago, whether China and Hong Kong and I are better off for the turn that was taken by those tanks on Changan Avenue, no difference of opinion can ever mean that those students deserved what happened to them. They were young and idealistic, unabashedly naive, but those are not capital crimes, not crimes of any kind.

We may never get over our insecurities, never fully remedy our cognitive dissonance. But the other thing that comes as a surprise the first time you stand with 100,000 others in Victoria Park is the clarity that an archipelago of candlelight brings to the dark. The faces of your neighbours appear brighter than underneath a headline, softer than in a demonstration in Statue Square. Their voices sing gently, much gentler than in a fracas in Mong Kok or Causeway Bay.

For one night each year, nowhere in the world is as literally a beacon and island of freedom. It is a freedom wrapped up in contradiction, but so am I, so are all of us; that is, perhaps, what makes us and our city and this administrative region, true to its designation, special.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong