Event holds very different memories for HK, Taiwan

FROM 1989 until today, Hong Kong and Taiwan have played separate but complementary roles in supporting the Tiananmen movement.

But with both Chinese societies going through troubled pangs in their relationship with China, they are also increasingly marking Tiananmen in ways different from those in the past.

A 'Qingming' ritual?

EVERY June 4, Hong Kong's Victoria Park is suffused in candlelight and camaraderie as tens of thousands gather in a night vigil.

Organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the vigil calls for a reversal of the official verdict of the protest as a "counter-revolutionary rebellion".

As the only place on Chinese soil that marks the event on such a scale, Hong Kong has long been seen as the torchbearer for the memory of June 4, 1989.

But Mr Wong Yeung Tat, 35, can barely conceal his disdain.

The founder of Passion Times, a radical "nativist" - or bentu - group which advocates the protection of a separate Hong Kong identity, is co-organising for the first time an event at Tsim Sha Tsui today. Calls will be made for the Communist Party to step down and its flag burned. This, he said, is the only way Hong Kong can achieve "genuine democracy".

"We Hong Kongers should not be remembering June 4 by holding candles, like we are paying respects to ancestors during Qingming," he said. "We should remember June 4 by fighting for Hong Kong's own democracy."

Freelance writer Edward Tang, 29, who is participating in this, said it is important to remember the day simply so Hong Kong will be "well-prepared if the same thing happened to us".

Such sentiments are still in the minority. But with at least three rival events this year, they appear to be gaining sympathy in a society where ties with China have taken on a sometimes hysterical edge over issues from Beijing's accused stymying of its democratisation to scuffles with mainland tourists.

It thus challenges the narrative of why Tiananmen is important to Hong Kong: A shared destiny between both places.

In 1989, as Hong Kongers followed the developments in Beijing, there was what China expert Steve Tsang called "a vital transition" in how they saw themselves - as Chinese with also a role to play in China's democracy movement. The alliance was set up then by politicians like Mr Szeto Wah and Mr Martin Lee, who see themselves as Chinese patriots.

Under it, Hong Kongers stepped out in a massive rally, contributed HK$30 million and even tried to orchestrate a run on China-owned banks. A key achievement was the Operation Yellow Bird that helped some 400 dissidents to flee China.

There was much at stake for Hong Kong itself too: With eight years to go before the then British colony reverted to Chinese rule, the belief was that as long as freedom, human rights and democracy could not be guaranteed in China, they could not be protected in Hong Kong.

This is now disputed by younger Hong Kongers. Student activist leader Joshua Wong, 17, who led the movement Scholarism that forced the government to shelve its national education plans in 2012, said: "The older ones feel that if China does not democratise, there is no hope for Hong Kong. But for us, it is the other way round - Hong Kong will and can democratise before China."

That said, he believes it is important to continue remembering Tiananmen. "It was a failure, but the sincerity of what they were trying to achieve motivates us."

Meanwhile, questions are asked whether Hong Kong's interests are best served by its involvement then, and its continued hammering away at an issue that some believe should be put to rest.

Beijing was "very angry" with the support that Hong Kongers gave the movement, believing that they were trying to subvert the central government, noted Professor Tsang in his book A Modern History Of Hong Kong.

That suspicion of Hong Kong as a base of subversion feeds into a cycle of deep mutual distrust that continues today.

Mr Lee Cheuk Yan, now the alliance's chairman, calls it "lies spread by the Communist Party".

What he acknowledges is the challenge of ensuring that Tiananmen stays relevant to Hong Kongers. As time passes, it becomes more difficult.

As web editor Sam To, 25, said: "I stopped going to the vigil three years ago because I found it boring. People sitting there, holding candles, talking about their own stuff. The bloody shooting shocked me when I first knew about it, but I feel nothing now."

This, and that other rival events have sprung up, is a concern, said Reverend Chu Yiu Ming, one of those who led Operation Yellow Bird. "We need to stay united, to ensure we send a message to Beijing that Hong Kongers still remember and care."

Poking a finger in Beijing's eyes

IT IS a different story over on the other island. While Taiwanese closely followed the 1989 developments, the interest was soon eclipsed by domestic concerns.

The year after Tiananmen, Taiwan went through its own political convulsions. The Wild Lily student movement - partly inspired by the Beijing protests - saw students stage a sit-in at Liberty Square, calling for an end to one- party rule. President Lee Teng- hui promised reforms, and competitive polls were later introduced.

Since then, Taiwan - mindful of cross-strait ties - has played a more passive role in marking Tiananmen. It is most notable as the current residence for two student leaders, Mr Wang Dan and Mr Wu-er Kaixi, No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on Beijing's most wanted list of Tiananmen dissidents.

In recent years though, there has been a surge in enthusiasm, noted political scientist Wang Ding-shu. Four years ago, Mr Tu Jingwei, 25, then a student, organised a vigil. Just 100 showed up. "Most thought I was weird as I was asking them to remember events not relevant to them."

But since 2012, more have showed up. Last year saw a record 1,000 participants.

The rapid warming of cross-straits ties under President Ma Ying-jeou is a key impetus.

Mr Tu said: "It has pushed us, especially the younger ones, to want to know more about what is going on in China."

On the one hand, there is the desire to venerate the fallen and to hold up the values of democracy and human rights.

But many of those who turn up are pro-independence and, he admitted, the desire to poke a finger in Beijing's eye is also part of the motivation. "Because we want independence and we are anti-China, since June 4 is taboo in China, then we must bring out the issue and talk about it."

xueying@sph.com.sg