Remembering June 4 dead has a place in Hong Kong’s fight for democracy

Gary Cheung says while understandable, Hong Kong students’ desire to dissociate themselves from the drive for national progress is illogical

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 2:27pm

In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Since the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, Beijing has used all methods to stop mainlanders from mentioning the tragic event in the public domain while frowning on the activities in Hong Kong to commemorate the incident.

At a private meeting with veteran pro-democracy activist Szeto Wah in 1997, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa asked the then chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements of China to drop the “June 4 baggage”. Tung told Szeto the following year not to organise events to commemorate the crackdown. Tung’s efforts were in vain: the turnout for the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park reached a record of more than 180,000 in 2014, according to the organisers.

What Tung failed to achieve is now being delivered by the city’s student leaders. Representatives of student unions from 11 tertiary institutions have decided to organise a forum on Saturday to discuss the significance of June 4, but there will be no session to mourn those killed. The University of Hong Kong student union will organise another forum on the same day but the theme will be the future of Hong Kong.

Alternative June 4 vigil will include forum on Hong Kong’s future

Advocating independence with a locked mindset

HKU student union president Althea Suen Hiu-nam argued last week that a line should be drawn under mourning those killed in 1989 as the commemorative activities had made no headway. She said the alliance’s slogan of “building a democratic China” was a “utopian goal” that was impossible to achieve, and wasting efforts on it would only impede Hong Kong’s democratic development.

Student leaders’ rejection of the goal of “building a democratic China” can be attributed to their frustration with the mainland authorities in the wake of the Occupy protests. They are trying to grapple with the localist movement while rejecting the Hong Kong-mainland bond. This sense of alienation from the mainland is prevalent among a substantial number of young people here.

Turnout plunges by half as Hongkongers march to remember June 4 Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy

While their frustration is understandable, I am not convinced by their flawed logic that the goal of building a democratic China and mourning those who died for the betterment of the country are at odds with fighting for democracy in Hong Kong. They fail to recognise that Hongkongers’ support for the pro-democracy movement on the mainland has contributed to the development of civil society in Hong Kong.

If we talk of stopping something because of a lack of progress, should Hong Kong people then stop their fight for democracy because the goal is still far off? Will student leaders who are now calling for the city’s self-determination return to lecture rooms if their campaign fails to make any headway two years from now?

Over the past decade, Keung Kwok-yuen – sacked as chief executive editor of Ming Pao last month – has insisted on mourning the victims in his column in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement each June. The veteran journalist told me in June last year he was worried that, as time goes by, the younger generations may become indifferent to the tragedy. “Who can guarantee it won’t happen? I will continue to do my part in writing about the June 4 incident if possible,” Keung said.

The widely respected journalist can no longer write about the tragedy. As someone who cares about the betterment of Hong Kong and the country, I feel duty bound to keep the memory of that chapter of history alive.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor