Why Hong Kong’s student leaders are abandoning June 4 vigil
A look at the deep divide between elder activists championing the city’s annual commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown and their younger counterparts
Wearing a headband with the words “never call a truce”, Alex Chow Yong-kang led more than 20 members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students to the lit stage in Victoria Park. Before a shimmering sea of candles, he delivered an evocative speech on the importance of remembering the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
It was June 4, 2014, at the annual candlelight vigil held in Hong Kong each year, well before the unprecedented 79-day pro-democracy Umbrella Movement sit-ins the following September that Chow co-led.
“We, a group of university students, believe that people who refuse to forget about the crackdown all share the same belief - to bring democracy and freedom to this piece of land,” Chow told the crowd.
“Hongkongers now are just like the Chinese citizens in 1989. Beijing students exercised civil disobedience to occupy Tiananmen Square. Don’t they share the same belief as Hongkongers today who float the idea of Occupy Central? Aren’t we all targeting the same regime?”
No-one listening to Chow in the crowd would have expected then that would be the last time the federation, the city’s oldest and largest student group, would appear on the stage of the world’s largest annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Amid the rise of localist sentiments in the wake of the Occupy Movement, the federation decided last year not to attend the candlelight vigil organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.
Leaders argued it was inappropriate for the federation, as a platform of students, to be affiliated with any parties. But many believed it was the students’ perception that the alliance’s goal of building a democratic mainland was neither possible nor a duty owed by Hongkongers that fuelled the split.
The student unions of almost all local universities – which formerly comprised the alliance’s core – pledged to boycott this year’s vigil, with Althea Suen Hiu-nam, a student leader at the University of Hong Kong, even questioning whether the commemoration should end.
The groups planned instead to host seminars at both HKU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong on June 4 to explore the city’s political future.
Paul Liu Chun-sing, an executive member of the federation, is one of the young people who viewed the Occupy protests as triggering a change in sentiment.
“It’s the sense of helplessness. We sat there for 79 days, and we achieved nothing,” Liu said. “After the Umbrella Revolution, I completely gave up my identity as a Chinese. I don’t think we need to fight for the ‘political fruits’ for a different race that always invades us.”
Liu argued the alliance had tried to impose a responsibility to build a democratic China which was without foundation.
“As a post-90s [person], I didn’t even have a chance to watch the live newscasts [of Tiananmen],” he said, invoking a regularly used term describing those born after the 1989 crackdown. “But I was soon given the responsibility to vindicate the Beijing student movement and build a democratic China after I was born.”
“I was asked to be responsible for something that the Chinese [living on the mainland] do not even fight for. Is such responsibility innate?”
Having a democratic mainland might not necessarily benefit Hong Kong, Liu argued, as the city would lose its uniqueness and “would be no different from Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou”.
At the heart of the rejection is a growing conviction that Hong Kong is separate and distinct from the mainland.
To Liu, and a growing number of others from his generation, China is just a neighbouring country. To them, therefore, the June 4 crackdown is no different from other tragedies around the world.
“I support a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine and support all the countries in the world to implement democracy, but I wouldn’t help them achieve it on the ground,” Liu said. “Just like we wouldn’t fly all the way to Cuba and North Korea to fight for their democracy.”
He added Hongkongers should focus on achieving something more possible than impossible: universal suffrage in China.
Liu admitted localist thinking was a form of protectionism over what is important for Hong Kong, but denied it was narrow-minded or without conscience.
“Human beings are selfish, and we should admit that,” he said. “If we can’t even deal with our own city then how could we love the outside world?”
The change of heart by the federation is striking, for it championed Beijing’s pro-democracy movement at a local level even prior to the alliance’s establishment.
This is perhaps why Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a former federation leader, found the snub ironic as well as “particularly painful and heartbreaking”.
Just like the Occupy movement was a pivotal moment in Liu’s life, the Tiananmen crackdown was momentous for Tsoi, he said.
“I vividly remember after [the crackdown]. I told myself calmly when I was alone that I would do whatever I could for the rest of my life to back the drive by the Beijing students to build a democratic China,” Tsoi told the Post.
At 48, he has kept his promise, forging a career in civil society and now serving as vice-chairman of the alliance.
To him, remembering the crackdown and pressing for the Communist Party regime to admit wrongdoing are matters of justice and conscience.
“If it is not for justice, why join a student activist group?” asked Tsoi, who served as vice-president of Chinese University’s students’ union in 1985 and in the following years with the federation.
“We should put our conscience before our identity.”
After 1989, many mainland activists carried on their struggle, albeit some underground. He said many had been arrested while others remained on a wanted list.
“It is totally unjustifiable for Hongkongers, living in a much safer place, not to speak a word on the crackdown,” he said. “It’s also what keeps me going.”
Tsoi disagreed with student leaders’ criticism that the annual vigil was ritualistic and meaningless, and that, as Liu claimed, it served as an occasion for the public to reflect on Hong Kong’s future.
Citing Czech writer Milan Kundera, he described the work of the alliance over the years as “the struggle of memory against forgetting”.
“The authority has always wanted you to forget about the incident,” he said. “What we do is not let people forget about the crackdown, not let authorities twist or cover up the incident … and it is our insistence which makes the June 4 crackdown still a matter that cannot be ducked by Chinese leaders today two decades on.”
Tsoi dismissed criticism that the alliance’s work was merely symbolic, countering that it held seminars to explore various issues, including human rights in the mainland.
The alliance was also a “localist movement”, he said, citing how civil society had worked closely with it in 2003 to protest national security legislation that many feared would curb the city’s freedoms and rights.
Former Tiananmen activist Zhou Fengsuo, who is also troubled by the rejection of the vigil, said the “splintering effect” would please the Communist Party.
“The candlelight vigil has been an inspiration for Chinese who long for democracy and freedom,” he told the Post. “It has become such an identity and legacy of Hong Kong [that is] admired by people all over the world.”
Localism without universal values would only make Hong Kong become more like China, he warned.
Zhou, who ranked fifth on Beijing’s most-wanted list at the time of the crackdown and has now resettled in the US, also hoped the younger generation could exert more influence in the alliance’s decision-making process so they could eventually join and lead it.
Chow, the Occupy co-leader, said it was understandable that the younger generation had developed such strong localist and inward-looking thinking in the wake of their significant setback in late 2014.
“Due to the sense of helplessness, they want to steer clear of the mainstream thinking held by the traditional pan-democrats and put forward their own ideology,” he said. “They want to try their best to defend it, though sometimes they might not be entirely convinced.”
Yet Chow thought there was no need for society “to feel sorry” about the split or to magnify the difference between the alliance and the younger generation.
The rift between the pan-democrats and young people has always existed, he contended, but it was the Umbrella Movement that exacerbated it.
“The only way to solve the problem is through communication. Pan-democrats should swallow their pride and really listen to the views of young people,” he said. “The situation will head toward a deadlock if both sides insist on their stance and refuse to talk.”
Indeed, both the older generation and the students have pointed fingers at one another, accusing the other side of doing “what the Communist Party wants them to do”.
Dr Chung Kim-wah, a political scientist at Polytechnic University, said high property prices, the influx of mainland tourists and stagnant democratic progress were all key contributors to young Hongkongers’ disillusionment and pushing them to cut ties with the mainland. Beijing should worry about this development, he warned.
The movement to press for the central government to admit wrongdoing in 1989 could still be sustained for now, he said, but it would be another story if localist thinking became a commonly-held view among young people.
Liu was adamant that localist sentiment would not only strengthen over the years, but also spread from schools to the whole of society.
Tsoi, the former student leader, remained optimistic about the two camps coming together.
“Every movement has its ups and downs,” he said. “I still have faith that we can pass the torch because I have the faith in Hongkongers and our next generation.”
On Saturday, that faith will be tested. The lit candles will be just one measure of whether the city’s young people favour forgetting or remembering Tiananmen.