Tens of thousands of people cram into Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. A significant number of them were obviously born after the massacre took place.
Has it really been 25 years since the People’s Liberation Army rolled tanks through the streets of the Chinese capital, crushing to death unarmed workers, peasants, and patriotic capitalists on their ways to opening live fire on unarmed students and intellectuals in Tiananmen Square?
Lots of things have happened since then, but one small inicident sticks out in my memory.
The year was 1997. It was just 3 weeks before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July. We were all feeling pretty emotional …
My best friend at the time – a guy called Tommy, that I have since lost contact with – had agreed to attend the June 4th candlelight vigil in Victoria Park with me.
It was everyone’s assumption at the time that this would be the last candlelight vigil to be held in Victoria Park.
First, we assumed that the park would undergo a name change as soon as the Chinese took over control of the city. Second, we didn’t think that such vigils would be allowed – neither in Victoria Park, nor anywhere else in Hong Kong – after the Handover.
How COULD they be allowed when they were not allowed anywhere else on Chinese soil???
I waited for Tommy at the place and time we were supposed to meet, but he didn’t show up. I eventually gave up and went into the park alone.
When Tommy called me the next day, he was in tears. He apologized profusely. He said that he had had a big argument with his family the night before. He said that he had told them that it was really important for him to attend the vigil.
His family responded that it was TOO dangerous. The police might take pictures of him, and they would all be in really big trouble.
Such were the fears in Hong Kong on the eve of its return to Chinese rule on 1 July 1997.
Seventeen years have passed, but the park’s name hasn’t changed, and the vigils continue.
There is no question in my mind that the Hong Kong government is under intense pressure from Beijing to put a stop to the vigils. They must be a HUGE embarrassment for BOTH sides. So why do the vigils continue?
There are lots of factors: Hong Kong’s democratic camp is highly organized; religious groups are very powerful; the media is largely unbridled.
And then you have the students. At every one of the student unions that I have visited at university campuses in Hong Kong, there are images of the Goddess of Liberty and accounts of the Tiananmen Massacre posted on the walls.
This was NOT surprising 2 decades ago. But 25 years on?
The most important factor (which includes the factors that I have just mentioned) is the pluralistic nature of Hong Kong society. You have labour unionists, student activists, hospital workers, schoolteachers, housewives, and lawyers.
You have recent immigrants from the mainland, domestic workers from Southeast Asia, and LOTS of middle class people with foreign passports.
They all have very different axes to grind, and they DON’T suffer manipulation gladly!!!
As much as the government in Hong Kong would LOVE to put a stop to these vigils, they seem to know that if they attempted to do so – even MORE people would show up.
And they know that if things went wrong, the significant number of people with foreign passports – who mostly comprise the professional classes – might abandon the city, which would have a devastating impact on the economy.
(And let’s face it: most of them have foreign passports, too … And they would be among the first to leave …)
Are the vigils allowed because they offer the people of this city a reassurance that there is no reason to panic – no reason to flee?
The Hong Kong government DID, in fact, announce plans a few years ago to ‘renovate’ Victoria Park, which would have effectively meant that the annual candlelight vigil could not be held there because it would be one large construction site.
It didn’t work!!!
Not sure where the ‘pressure’ came from, but I am sure it was ‘multilateral’ (and VERY intense). The ‘plans’ to ‘renovate’ the park were quietly dropped. And the vigils continued.
Power Brokers in Beijing?
And now … if I can go out on a limb … I think that there ARE power brokers in Beijing that LIKE the vigils!
The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is not NEARLY as monolithic as the outside world likes to think it is. There is constant infighting among rival factions. Not ALL of them supported the military crackdown in 1989!
If there is censorship in China, that’s why Chinese Communist leaders that can’t get their voices heard in the domestic press get their opinions aired in the Hong Kong media.
As far as I know – they ALL read Hong Kong newspapers (even if the rest of the population can’t).
Hong Kong is a city of 7 million people. But it is the conscious of a country of 1.3 billion people. Nearly 200,000 of them made that VERY clear last night!