Spirit of Tiananmen protests lives on in planned Hong Kong, Taiwan demonstrations

Today, some young Hong Kongers will be remembering the 1989 Tiananmen Incident - by massing outside the People’s Liberation Army headquarters at Admiralty.

There will be no candlelight vigil, no sing-a-longs of old patriotic songs, no tearful reminiscences of what happened 25 years ago.

Instead, organisers are calling on participants to arm themselves with pro-independence slogans and British colonial-era flags, under the theme: “Murderous army, crawl back to China”.

There is even talk of a foolhardy attempt to break in into the barracks.

This “Tiananmen commemoration event” will, certainly, be quite unlike any before.

From 1989 till today, Hong Kong and Taiwan have played separate but complementary roles in supporting the movement.

But with both Chinese societies going through troubled pangs in their relationships with mainland China, they are also increasingly marking June 4 in ways different from those in the past, as its significance for them evolves.

“A Qingming ritual”?

Every June 4, Victoria Park in Hong Kong is suffused in gentle candlelight and camaraderie as tens of thousands gather in a vigil.

Organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, it 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 – Macau’s vigils barely attract a few hundred – Hong Kong has long been seen as the torchbearer for the memory of June 4.

But Mr Wong Yeung Tat can barely conceal his disdain.

The 35-year-old 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 that will burn the Communist Party flag and call for it to step down. This, he says, 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 tells The Straits Times. “We should remember June 4 by fighting for Hong Kong’s own democracy!”

Freelance writer Edward Tang, 29, who is participating in this event, says it is important to remember June 4 simply so Hong Kong will be “well-prepared if the same thing happened to us”.

“What they did to those students – the beatings, the shootings, the arrests – may happen to us while fighting for democracy.”

He adds: “The mainland’s democracy is not our business. We Hong Kongers have our own issues.”

Such sentiments are still in the minority; in fact, the Victoria Park vigil tonight is likely to score a record turnout given the anniversary milestone. 

But with at least three rival events this year, they appear to be gaining sympathy in a society where relations with the mainland have taken on a sometimes-hysterical edge over issues from Beijing’s perceived intervention in Hong Kong affairs and styming of its democratisation, to scuffles with mainland tourists.

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

In 1989, as Hong Kongers avidly followed the Tiananmen events live on television, there was what China expert Steve Tsang called “a vital transition” in how they saw themselves – as Chinese who also have a role to play in China’s democracy movement. 

The Alliance was established then by democracy figures like Szeto Wah and Martin Lee who view themselves as Chinese patriots. Under it, Hong Kongers stepped out in a massive demonstration, contributed HK$30 million for fundraising events such as a concert with stars like Anita Mui, and even tried to orchestrate a run on China-owned banks by withdrawing deposits. 

A key achievement was the underground Operation Yellow Bird that helped some 400 dissidents 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 cannot 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, says: “The older ones feel that if China does not democratise, there is no hope for Hong Kong. 

“But for us, it’s the other way round – Hong Kong will and can democratise before China.”

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

At the same time, questions have been asked whether Hong Kong’s interests are best served by its high-profile 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 to the movement, believing that they were trying to subvert the central government, noted Prof Tsang. In response, it purged the Communist bodies in Hong Kong including Work Committee head Xu Jiatun who was seen as too soft and introduced new provisions into Hong Kong’s Basic Law including an anti-subversion law.

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 chairman, rejects this, calling it “lies spread by the Commnist Party”. “It is a myth. Do you think they will become more liberal with Hong Kong even if we are not involved?”

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, admits: “I stopped going to the vigil three years ago because I found it boring. People sitting there, holding candles, talking about their own stuff. It’s like a friends’ gathering. 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, say Reverend Chu Yiu Ming, one of three who helped spearhead Operation Yellow Bird. “We need to stay united, keep our numbers together, to ensure we send a message to Beijing that Hong Kongers still remember and care.”

On whether Hong Kongers should intervene in mainland politics even as they insist on non-interference from Beijing under the one country two systems framework, he argues a distinction should be made between government and people. 

“As Chinese people, our voices should be heard on a matter that affects all of us. And as the government, they should be serving us.”

Poking a finger in Beijing’s eyes 

It is a different story over on the other island.

While the Taiwanese closely followed the 1989 developments in Beijing and raised funds for the students, the interest was soon eclipsed by domestic concerns. 

In fact, the year after Tiananmen, Taiwan went through its own political convulsions. The Wild Lily student movement - partially inspired by the Beijing protests- saw 20,000 students stage a sit-in at the Liberty Square, calling for an end of one-party rule. President Lee Teng-hui promised reforms and competitive elections were later introduced. 

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

Even then, says Mr Wang in an interview, Taipei did not specifically roll out the red carpet.

“I chose to go to Taiwan in 2009 after my studies in the United States because it was a Chinese society,” he says.

Among the Taiwanese, there was also relatively little interest due to the separation of the two sides. June 4 dates often pass by unmarked. 

In recent years, however, there has been a surge in enthusiasm, notes political scientist Wang Ding-shu.

Four years ago, Mr Tu Jingwei, 25, then a university student, decided to organise a vigil. Just 100 showed up. “When I invited my classmates and friends, most thought I was weird as I was asking them to remember events and people not relevant to them. Some came as they thought it was an after-school activity!”

But since 2012, more showed up. Last year saw a record 1,000 participants, more than half of whom are in their 20s and below. 

The rapid warming of the cross-Straits relationship under President Ma Ying-jeou is a key impetus, says Mr Tu. “This has pushed us, especially the younger ones, to want to know more about what’s going on in China.”

On one hand is the “humanitarian” 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 admits, 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, and since June 4 is taboo in China, then we must bring out the issue and talk about it.”

A quarter century on, the bloody scenes of Tiananmen may have long been excised from mainland China’s official narrative, but they have played over and over again in videos and photos in Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

They are clearly powerful in and of themselves. But in these two societies, with their fraught relationship with China, they also draw resonance from their particular concerns and anxieties.

xueying@sph.com.sg