Tea Leaf Nation

Hong Kong’s Long-standing Unity on Tiananmen Is Unraveling

Some are becoming more pro-China; others believe the city should secede from the People's Republic.

People take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2015, to mark the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Tens of thousands were expected to mark the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, organisers said, as they call on people to "stay united" as the city faces frustrations over its own democratic reforms.  AFP PHOTO / DALE DE LA REY        (Photo credit should read DALE de la REY/AFP/Getty Images)
People take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2015, to mark the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Tens of thousands were expected to mark the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, organisers said, as they call on people to "stay united" as the city faces frustrations over its own democratic reforms. AFP PHOTO / DALE DE LA REY (Photo credit should read DALE de la REY/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — June 4, a day that changed mainland China forever, has become a cross that the city of Hong Kong bears. Each year thousands of the city’s residents gather on an often steamy night and share anxious memories of 1989, when tanks rolled by bloodied students and bodies sprawled on Beijing streets. For many Hong Kongers, the day is an uncomfortable yet necessary reminder that while they may have come of age in a colony ruled by the British, they now live under a controlling government willing to answer protest with bullets. The collective grief that Hong Kongers once felt over Tiananmen, something that has bonded residents for a quarter-century, has started to fracture.

Hong Kong residents were still British subjects in 1989, with talks underway for the territory to return to China’s orbit eight later. Reared in a society where the press and people could pillory their queen, many Hong Kong residents supported the mainland students who camped for weeks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. They were horrified on June 3, when soldiers with rifles and troops in tanks began mowing down protesters in and around Tiananmen. Watching TV images of the wounded hauled away on bicycles and park benches, Hong Kongers realized that their future government could silence them, too. Ever since, tens of thousands of people have gathered in the city’s Victoria Park to light candles and honor the dead. Last year’s 25th anniversary event drew 180,000, organizers estimated. It’s a day that, for many years, glued Hong Kongers like no other. Now that unity is cracking.

This year, several groups in Hong Kong organized their own commemorations of the Tiananmen slaughter, or exploited the day’s significance, depending on one’s viewpoint. University students, sundered by infighting over the handling of last fall’s massive street sit-in, did not join together on the vigil’s stage under the flag of the Hong Kong Federation of Students as they had in year’s past. Instead, hundreds attended a remembrance at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Civic Passion, a radical political party whose members favor Hong Kong independence from the mainland, hosted political rallies in districts around the city. And, as happened last year, some Beijing loyalists said they would gather to support the government and soldiers who ended the 1989 protest.

Some questioned the premise of the vigil altogether. Some Hong Kong activists said they could no longer attend because they disagreed with the goal espoused by the organizing group, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. “They want to build a democratic China,” said Ventus Lau, a fourth-year student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong who said he would attend the HKU event. But, Lau said, “I think Hong Kong people are not Chinese, so we don’t have the obligation to build a democratic China. We think the meaning of the June 4 event is to remind people that the [Communist Party-mainland government] is a violent government. They will kill people who ask for democracy.”

The alliance did not respond to this reporter’s queries. It’s clear, though, that several forces created the fissures. One is residual anger over the massive 79-day protest last fall that blocked city roadways but failed to win one concession from the government. (The city’s legislature is slated to vote this month on a new elections plan that would give residents their first ever vote for the city’s chief executive, but only for candidates vetted by Beijing.) After, the democracy movement dissolved into rounds of blame and finger pointing and few groups have been cooperating in an effective way since.

While youthful agitators have captured the attention of international media, the city’s growing, graying populace appears to hold more sympathetic views toward Beijing. A recent poll conducted by HKU found that the percentages of those who believe that human rights conditions in China have improved since 1989, and who think conditions will improve in the next three years, have grown. The poll also found that Hong Kong people think they must promote democratic and economic developments in the mainland.

Then there’s the draw of what Hong Kongers call localism. In recent years, a small but vocal group of residents have protested the poor manners and trade practices of mainland visitors, especially those who urinate in public or scoop up goods to be sold illegally over the border. Since the protest, the localist philosophy has been adopted by those who want Hong Kong to separate from China. Civic Passion, a radical political party, has stoked these passions and egged on young groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous. On Thursday, Civic Passion organized political rallies around the city opposing the elections proposal. Taking part in the vigil “means we need to wait for the Communist Party to guarantee Hong Kong’s independence,” said Civic Passion member Cheng Chung-tai. “To sit here for 20 years and wait for China to change. That is a liberal myth [coming] from the middle class.”

Even with attendance lower than in recent years, this year’s vigil continued late into the night, with its usual traditions of flower-laying, torch-lighting, songs, and speeches from people who lost relatives in the Tiananmen violence. Hundreds gathered at HKU and hundreds more across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon. Police said about 46,000 met at Victoria Park, about half the number at last year’s 25th anniversary event.

One person who planned to be there was Michelle Wong. Wong, who will start her final year at HKU in the fall, was born four years after Tiananmen, and was a fixture at last fall’s occupation. She said people needed to remember that the protesters’ battle at Tiananmen is the same fight shared by Hong Kong activists today. “The students back in 1989 were fighting for democracy and against corruption in the government. This is exactly what we’re doing in Hong Kong at the moment,” she said. Attending the vigil reminds the central government “we are refusing to wipe out this piece of history.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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