June 4th protests

Why are Hong Kong activists arguing over the annual June 4 vigil? And are we too fixated on the turnout?

The commemoration has come to mean different things to different Hongkongers, and just had its lowest attendance in almost a decade

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 5:49pm

The turnout at the annual June 4 commemoration on Sunday night was the lowest since 2008.

That has again highlighted the rise in localism in Hong Kong, and the idea that dwindling interest among young people in the events of 1989 mean the symbolic event will one day be forgotten in the city.

Older democrats at the memorial to those killed during the Tiananmen Square crackdown 28 years ago voice hope for a democratic China.

Protesters march to Beijing office in Hong Kong after Tiananmen vigil

But some young people see at most a tenuous link between the event and their fight for democracy in Hong Kong.

Q: Is the 110,000 turnout for this year’s candlelight vigil really that bad?

The first June 4 vigil was held in 1990, when 150,000 people are estimated to have attended.

Turnouts were below 100,000 from 1992 to 2008, according to the organiser Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.

The lowest turnouts were in 1993 and 1994, when just 40,000 people showed up.

Numbers surged in significant years including the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the crackdown. They hit an all-time high of 200,000 in 2009, and numbers stayed above 100,000 from then on.

Q: Why do student groups boycott the vigil?

Student unions from all the city’s universities have skipped the annual vigil for the last two years, many of them disagreeing with the event’s slogan, “build a democratic China”.

Many young Hongkongers reject any connection between China’s democratic development and the city’s own fate.

Some student bodies have held their own Hong Kong-focused June 4 events, while others decided to abandon the commemoration altogether.

In a statement posted on social media last week, the student union at Chinese University said the time to commemorate the crackdown had ended, saying the annual vigil had become a ritual with “patriotic and nationalist sentiments”.

Q: What are the rituals of the vigil?

Every year people at the vigil light candles, sing memorial songs and read a eulogy for victims of the 1989 crackdown, in which many pro-democracy activists died. Though the exact death toll may never be known, hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000, died.

Voices from Tiananmen: Eyewitnesses look back to the spring of 1989

Vigil organisers also lay a wreath at a statue of the Goddess of Democracy every year.

Some think these rites offer support to people who lost loved ones in the crackdown, but some student leaders believe the “rigid and cliche” activities are only futile grief procedures.

Q: And how do organisers defend the rituals?

Leaders of the alliance have said the established procedures are necessary for a “solemn ceremony”, just like people perform a series of rituals during tomb-sweeping.

They believe the June 4 event has reinforced the memory of the crackdown around the world.

The alliance also argues that supporting democratic movements in the mainland will benefit Hong Kong.

Q: How have organisers tried to appeal to young people?

Responding to the changing political landscape, organisers replaced patriotic songs such as China Dream with Hong Kong-themed works like Raise the Umbrella.

The alliance also included younger faces in its leadership. In 2015, barrister Chow Hang-tung, now 32, became its vice-chairwoman.

On Sunday, Chow delivered the eulogy, instead of veteran democrats like Albert Ho Chun-yan and Lee Cheuk-yan.

With student unions staying away, the alliance has invited other youngsters to share their experience at the vigil.

During a section named “Dialogue with the Youth” at this year’s event, secondary school students were invited onstage to talk about what June 4 means for them.

Afterwards, high school boy band Boyz Reborn performed a song they composed to commemorate the crackdown.