June 4 shows why Hong Kong is not just another city in China
As time goes by, it could be harder for youngsters to share same feelings as previous generations about Tiananmen, but maintaining city’s special status is a shared responsibility for all
On a business trip to Singapore and Malaysia over the last few days, I found taxi drivers often asking me if I was from China, and which part of the country I came from.
“Yes, I’m from Hong Kong,” was my regular answer.
Then the conversation would continue with the drivers saying something along the lines of, “Ah, Hong Kong, a fascinating city. But now we see more mainland Chinese visitors coming, big spenders. Wonder where their money comes from.”
It’s probably no longer a new phenomenon that mainland tourists are seen as “crazy shoppers” – not only in Hong Kong, where they have become part and parcel of the city’s landscape, but also overseas. They are literally everywhere.
And the taxi drivers talking about “rich” Chinese visitors are referring to mainlanders rather than Hongkongers in general. But Hong Kong’s uniqueness is not forgotten yet.
One morning, as I was catching an early flight to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore, the driver taking me to the airport started an eloquent conversation, knowing I was from Hong Kong.
Besides telling me that his ancestors came to the city state from Hainan, he went on to declare how much he liked Hong Kong. But what gave me quite a pleasant surprise was his conclusion that Hong Kong was very different from the mainland because it was operating under a different system.
“So you know about ‘one country, two systems’?” I asked.
“Not really, I just know Hong Kong is not like other Chinese cities,” he replied.
He went on to tell me he would return to the land of his ancestors some day to see what progress Hainan had made – the southern island province is slated for transformation under an ambitious development plan announced by President Xi Jinping recently.
With China’s rising influence and visibility on the global stage, politically and economically, it is not unusual for people in other countries to find it hard to differentiate between tourists from the mainland and Hong Kong.
So how is Hong Kong to show the outside world that it is still a city with special and unique characteristics, more than 20 years after its sovereignty returned to China?
This is what makes June 4 special and relevant.
For 29 years, the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown has been a symbolic showcase of people in this city enjoying the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, guaranteed by the Basic Law.
What they are doing is political taboo and banned across the border, but mainlanders visiting the city or living here are free to join local residents gathering in memory of the student-led democratic movement. They get to watch Hongkongers openly criticise Beijing and shout slogans calling for an end to one-party rule on the mainland.
The fact is, people here are free to mark June 4, thanks to the “one country, two systems” policy, but it is also under this governing formula that the city has been warned repeatedly not to attempt to change the system on the other side.
The inconvenient truth that it looks like “mission impossible” to effect change on the mainland may explain why the crowds at Victoria Park have diminished over the years.
The latest survey suggests yet another new low when it comes to the relevance of June 4 memorial activities for youngsters.
As time goes by, it could be even harder for youngsters to share the same feelings as the previous generations about Tiananmen, but maintaining Hong Kong’s special status is a shared responsibility for all.
In that sense, June 4 does make a difference.