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June 4th protests

Time for vigil to reflect on its emphasis

After 28 years, perhaps the vigil’s organisers need to reflect on whether to alter the emphasis on democracy in China and commemorate the students who died in a way that is positive for political development in both the mainland and Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 1:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 1:02am

With Beijing forcefully asserting its authority over Hong Kong’s government ahead of the 20th anniversary on July 1 of the city’s return to China, debate over the future of “one country, two systems” is understandable. A reminder that the unique concept remains meaningful would be timely right now. As usual on June 4, come rain, hail or shine, tonight will provide one. Thousands are expected at Victoria Park for the annual candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

If there is anything that shows “one country, two systems” can work, it is this event – a commemoration, on Chinese soil, that remains taboo on the mainland. For nearly three decades it has been a constant in a restless sea of political conflicts that have divided Hong Kong along pro-Beijing and pro-democracy lines. That said, the ravages of time are testing its contemporary relevance, especially to young people.

To be sure, it resonates with the current mainland crackdown on official corruption, one of the issues of June 4, 1989, and curbs on free speech and dissent. But the participation of younger people who were still growing up or even unborn in 1989 peaked in the years after the 20th anniversary. Tonight will be watched for a continuation of that trend. It has been marked by separate campus observances and a shift away from emphasis on democratic development in the mainland towards political reform in Hong Kong or even, among a minority of students, discussion of separation from the mainland.

Activists in Hong Kong and China struggle to keep memories of 1989 Tiananmen crackdown alive after nearly three decades of silence from Beijing

The latter is a perversion of the symbolism implicit in the June 4 vigil of “one country, two systems”. It does not take account of the inextricable ties between the city and the mainland. Indeed, June 4 is a reminder of those bonds and the need to work together.

If the vigil is to unite generations, it needs to celebrate reconciliation and patriotism. For that to happen, Beijing would have to revisit the official verdict on June 4 that it was necessary to send PLA troops and tanks against protesters in Tiananmen Square, and make amends for the consequences. The country’s leaders at the time may have perceived a real threat of anarchy. But the crackdown has had a lingering influence on perceptions of China, not to mention a lasting impact on relations with Hong Kong democrats. Revising the verdict now would require courage to deal with painful events.

After 28 years, perhaps the vigil’s organisers need to reflect on whether to alter the emphasis on democracy in China and commemorate the students who died in a way that is positive for political development in both the mainland and Hong Kong.