People may not forget June 4, but Hong Kong political divide is there for all to see

Calls to end the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park have been much criticised, however one must ask why youngsters want to turn their backs on such activities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 11:06pm

It was the summer of 1989, when 64 local reporters from various media organisations who had covered the massive, student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen put their heads together to compile the book People Will Not Forget within a month.

Upon completion of this unprecedented work, all 64 authors – the number was quite a coincidence – truly believed in what the title suggested, that the commemoration of June 4 would last from generation to generation.

I guess none of the 64 could have imagined that, 27 years later, the People Will Not Forget sentiment would be challenged or even attacked amid a severe rift between some young people and organisers of the annual commemoration activities. One student union leader has even called the organisers “pimps in a brothel”, mocking their wider mission “to build a democratic China” as something irrelevant to Hong Kong. As far as these youngsters are concerned, the iconic candlelight vigil in Victoria Park and other related activities should come to an end, period.

There’s been no lack of criticism for such extreme views, but a bigger and more practical question is: why have these young people abandoned the commemoration and why has this common cause once binding Hongkongers together now turned into the catalyst for dividing the community?

There are those who put the blame on the growing “localism” trend, under which some are distancing themselves from the rest of China, or even seeking independence. Others see it as an “anti-intellectual” phenomenon among today’s young people, in the city as well as globally, while some have concluded it’s just the natural result of Hong Kong’s lack of national education.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has also weighed in when questionedon the rift, saying that since Hong Kong is a part of China and people on both sides of the border are “connected by blood”, Hongkongers should care about “major incidents” in the country’s history.

Commemoration of June 4 in the city has long been viewed as a historic mission, explicitly or implicitly: to spread the influence and impact of democracy out across the mainland, so as to achieve the ultimate goal of “building a democratic China” – as stated in the constitution of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the main organiser of the candlelight vigil.

Beijing has constantly warned that under the “one country, two systems” policy, the “well water” of Hong Kong should not interfere with the “river water” of the mainland – or Hong Kong should not instigate political changes on the mainland, just as it doesn’t welcome mainland interference in its internal affairs either. But recent years have seen more mainland tourists or students studying here joining the activities, as Hong Kong is the only place in China where people can freely and lawfully participate in commemorating June 4.

When asked back in 1998 whether Beijing would tolerate the candlelight vigils and related rallies after the handover, former premier Zhu Rongji made it clear that the freedom Hongkongers enjoyed before 1997 would continue as long as there was no breach of local law or the Basic Law.

Ironically, when these students now go to the extreme that they don’t even regard it their obligation “to build a democratic China”, a more direct and immediate impact is not that Hong Kong will soon cut its ties with China, since that’s simply impossible, but whether pan-democratic politicians will face more challenges in September’s Legislative Council elections.

For years, accelerating the pace of democracy in Hong Kong so as to push for the democratisation of the mainland has been one of the most effective tools for many pan–democrats to win the hearts and minds of voters, but this approach may no longer work for some among the youth demographic this year.

I still believe that “people will not forget”, though in reality, the current clash of ideals indicates the depth of the city’s political divide, which is bound to affect the election strategies of certain candidates.