June 4, 1989 events in China still have a profound effect on Hong Kong's political scene

Twenty-five years after Beijing suppressed the pro-democracy movement, the events still have a profound effect on the political scene in the city

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

The 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown forever changed Martin Lee Chu-ming's political career and his ties with the mainland.

Two years earlier, Xu Jiatun, then director of the mainland's representative office in Hong Kong - the political arm of the Xinhua News Agency and predecessor to Beijing's liaison office here - offered to provide Lee, who was chairman of Hong Kong's Bar Association from 1980 to 1983, with financial help to form a political group.

Lee and fellow democrat Szeto Wah later co-founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organised protests against Beijing's suppression of the pro-democracy movement. The move was a bittersweet turn of events for Lee: From 1985, he had helped draft the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, with Beijing authorities.

The bloody crackdown in Beijing convulsed Hong Kong's political landscape. The violent response to peaceful protesters cemented a mistrust many Hongkongers have for the communist mainland. The current crop of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists has a tense relationship with Beijing. That strain has complicated the path to the 2017 elections for chief executive and the promises of universal suffrage made by Beijing.

Jiang Shigong , deputy director of Peking University's Centre for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the 1989 crackdown continued to feed tensions. "It has also intensified the anti-communist mentality among some Hongkongers," he said.

Both Lee and Szeto, the alliance chairman until his death in 2011, resigned from the Basic Law Drafting Committee after mainland authorities snuffed out the 1989 pro-democracy protests, killing hundreds. Lee went on to start the United Democrats of Hong Kong in 1990, and in 1994 merged it with another political group, Meeting Point, to form the Democratic Party.

Lee has been attacked by the mainland media since 1989. In April, state-run newspaper Global Times and the overseas edition of People's Daily ran caustic editorials condemning him and former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang for "inviting foreign intervention" during their two-week visit to Canada and the United States, where they met US Vice-President Joe Biden.

"I never regret taking part in supporting the pro-democracy movement 25 years ago. If you believe in democracy and 'one country, two systems', there is no reason for you not to come out to support the democracy movement on the mainland," Lee said in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post.

In the early 1980s, many Hong Kong residents held great hope for China because the Communist Party's then general secretary, Hu Yaobang , had championed democratic freedoms and free speech. His ouster and 1989 death prompted the massive student demonstrations against corruption.

Last year, nearly 63 per cent of 1,013 people polled supported a reversal of Beijing's official verdict on the student movement, according to an annual survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme of Hongkongers' views of the June 4 crackdown. By comparison, nearly 50 per cent wanted a reversal in 1997.

Sentiment in Hong Kong on the 1989 events later played out in local elections. In the 1991 Legislative Council poll, when direct elections were first introduced, the United Democrats won a landslide victory, clinching 12 of the 18 directly elected seats. Meeting Point secured another two seats.

Lee agreed the democrats had profited from the "June 4 effect" in Legco elections since the early 1990s. The golden rule that pan-democrats won 60 per cent of the popular vote and the government-friendly camp 40 per cent in Legco polls held true for two decades. However, the pan-democrats' share dropped to 56.6 per cent in the most recent Legco election in 2012.

Another consequence of the 1989 events was a tougher approach by Beijing to Hong Kong affairs after it found that some Hong Kong people had sent funds and supplies to students in Beijing during the anti-government protests.

The friction was captured in the language used in various drafts of the Basic Law and in particular in debate over a law intended to prevent subversion.

The first draft of the miniconstitution, released in 1988, stated that the special administrative region shall prohibit any act designed to undermine national unity or "subvert" the central government.

The second draft, issued four months before the crackdown, stipulated that Hong Kong "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, or theft of state secrets". "I fought vigorously to eliminate the word 'subversion' in the relevant clause in the second draft," Lee said.

The Basic Law Drafting Committee, which resumed its work at the end of 1989 without Lee, reinserted the word "subversion" and broadened the scope of Article 23 in the final draft, which was subsequently incorporated into the Basic Law. The article reads: "The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets ... and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies."

Academics believed that the more conservative version was adopted because of Beijing's fear that Hong Kong would become a centre for activities hostile to the central government.

But the Hong Kong government's attempt to enact laws to implement Article 23 failed after it shelved national security legislation following a 500,000-strong march against the move on July 1, 2003.

Beijing made minor concessions on Hong Kong's democratic development in the face of Hong Kong people's growing calls for democracy in the wake of the 1989 crackdown.

Shortly after the pro-democracy movement in Beijing was crushed, 11 Hong Kong Basic Law drafters sent a joint letter to the central government calling for a faster pace of democracy in the city. In early 1990, then Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen and his British counterpart, Douglas Hurd, exchanged seven diplomatic letters in which the two governments agreed to limit the number of directly elected Legco seats in 1991 to 18, and then 20 in 1995.

The last-minute "exchanges" came just days before the Basic Law Drafting Committee put the final touches to the post-1997 mini-constitution.

There were also repercussions for the Chinese Communist Party. A few days after the 1989 crackdown, Ho Ming-sze quit the party, which he had joined in 1939. He had held a prominent position - head of the united front work department in the mainland's representative office - on his retirement in 1988. He announced his resignation from the party in an advertisement placed in a Chinese-language newspaper, the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

"The Communist Party suppressed its people in a bloody and unreasonable manner. It goes against the principle of the party which vows to fight for the betterment of the Chinese people," he said.

Ho, who was also deputy secretary-general of Xinhua's Hong Kong branch before his retirement, emigrated to Canada after the crackdown. However, Henry Fok Ying-tung, a Beijing-friendly multibillionaire, persuaded him to return to Hong Kong in the early 1990s to help him develop Nansha , a technology development zone south of Guangzhou.

Twenty-five years later, Ho, who in 1989 donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said he still believed there were no grounds for the mainland authorities to open fire on the pro-democracy protesters.

But at the same time he questions whether the prodemocracy movement was as simple and spontaneous as many people believed. "I'm not so sure whether there was any intervention by political forces from Western countries in the pro-democracy movement," said Ho, now 92. "As a Chinese, I do hope our country maintains stability."

Mainland authorities blamed "agents from hostile foreign forces" for masterminding the 1989 protests.

Also looking back at events in 1989, advertising industry veteran Leonie Ki Man-fung said she was advised to leave Hong Kong by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who said the "one country, two systems" formula would not work.

"In order to prove him wrong, I set up my advertising agency in Beijing in 1992. I wanted to see for myself, and judge by myself. Today, I am a showcase for going north," said Ki, now an executive director of New World Development, a listed company in Hong Kong.

Ki expresses empathy for the Chinese leadership and their difficulties in trying to handle the protests. "The Chinese government learned a lesson after the crackdown and made a better future for the country by speeding up economic reform. But it broke the trust with the people by suppressing the pro-democracy movement," she said.