My Take

June 4 exposes generational divide in Hong Kong

Commemorations to mark the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 are increasingly being ignored by the young – and that’s bad news for all of us

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 2:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 8:21am

Last Sunday’s annual march to remember the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 saw the lowest turnout in 10 years, with just 450 to 1,000 people taking part. The candlelight light vigil this Sunday will likely attract more people, as it has done in previous years. Still, the turnout is expected to be low.

But the real significance is not so much the numbers, but that fewer young people, especially student activists, are taking part. Worse, student unions from 10 universities are actively boycotting the gatherings. The June 4 commemorations, in short, are in danger of becoming events for old and middle-aged people. So much for passing the torch to the next generation.

You may think Chinese leaders would welcome such a development. After all, their mouthpieces in Hong Kong have been telling local people, over the past two decades, that they need to drop the “historical baggage” of June 4. Young people, especially those most politically active at the universities, are doing exactly that. The Baptist University student union even issued a statement calling June 4 an event that belonged to “the history of a neighbouring country”.

Lowest turnout since 2008 for Hong Kong march in memory of June 4 crackdown

Beijing has certainly had its wish. But as they say, be careful what you wish for. June 4 organisers such as the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China may be against authoritarianism and communism. But at least they consider themselves patriotic Chinese.

Many young activists today consider themselves neither patriotic nor Chinese. Unlike those ageing pan-dems, they think Hong Kong is, or should be, a separate entity from the rest of China. They believe democratic development on the mainland has nothing to do with them and it’s not their responsibility. In fact, some have argued that a fully democratic China is undesirable because with a populist mandate, Beijing might treat Hong Kong worse than it does now.

The central government has always understood that radical localism could be a real threat. Traditional democrats thought localists were their friends and allies, despite some initial differences. But events like the students’ ongoing boycott of June 4 commemorations should wake them up to the new reality.

Old-styled pan-democrats and Beijing can both agree on this: many of the most committed young activists today know or care little about China and its history.

That’s very bad for both of them – and all of us.