June 4 vigil in Hong Kong

Student boycott of Hong Kong’s June 4 vigil shows the need for meaningful dialogue in society

Alice Wu says the decision by Chinese University students not to take part in the annual commemoration offers Hong Kong a chance to reflect on meaningful dialogue with its youth, and for leaders to realise that challenging is not opposing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 7:51pm

The Chinese University of Hong Kong students’ union took quite a beating over its decision not to take part in the annual June 4 vigil at Victoria Park. While other groups organised their own memorial events, the union drew fire for declaring that “the commemoration has come to an end”. It later said it had no issue with people commemorating the event, only with its format.

We must not, however, lose sight of why and how the student union arrived at these conclusions, even if we do not agree. The students questioned whether the annual vigil had become more of a ritual than a meaningful event, and whether it has morphed into something else.

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We can disagree and debate, but accusing them of being “cold-blooded” or “lazy” doesn’t help. This is an opportunity for the organiser to explain why it has carried on with these ritualistic elements, and communicate not only to the young, but to all, the reasons for going through the same motions year after year. In short, it must provide the meaning behind the “rites” that have developed.

Clearly, the union felt that those meanings are now lost on some people. If we can’t question or are not allowed to reconsider the meaning of the vigil, then it really does become just ceremonial.

Watch: Why student leaders are boycotting June 4 vigil

Others have voiced frustrations over it before. They, too, challenge the notion that there is only one way to commemorate. We would like to believe that we teach students to question everything, to think independently and critically, outside the box. In that sense, their questions over the format, intent and purpose of the vigil are natural, and should even be encouraged.

For the community at large, this is an opportunity to rethink what meaningful dialogue entails. Perhaps the most ineffective way of communicating – and this isn’t limited to the young – is telling people what to do or not to do.

Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, recently took to the podium to lecture, not communicate. He said “there is a need [for young people] to correctly learn the relation between Hong Kong and the nation”, because there is “a tide of separatist ideas in Hong Kong”.

The thought police need not be deployed – the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ cannot be so easily shaken

The security of Hong Kong’s relation to the nation won’t change just because people think or talk about localism or “separatism”.

The thought police need not be deployed – the principle of “one country, two systems” cannot be so easily shaken. Indeed, introducing a notion of “thought crime” does “one country, two systems” a lot more damage.

Outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying saw the June 4 controversy as an opportunity for young people to reflect on their Chinese identity. Chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor called on people not to criticise the youngsters for commenting on current affairs or taking part in political activism.

Lam has pledged to make room for young people in policymaking by revamping the Central Policy Unit into more than just a research instrument – into one that takes on the role of facilitator in the public policymaking process, and to include more young people in it.

Carrie Lam promises bigger role for youth in making policies

These responses have greater potential to facilitate real dialogue and better understanding.

Former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who now teaches a new course on parliamentary practices and procedures at Chinese University, seems to be very comfortable with young people and his students’ “challenges”. He admits being challenged by his students, but to him, “challenging isn’t opposing”.

Tsang sees his students’ challenges as opportunities for him to be a better teacher. Surely all of us, not only students, can learn from this.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA