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Chris Yeung: Freedom without surrender

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1. Goddess of Democracy in the June 4th Museum.

2. Old Newspaper describing the June 4th incident displayed in the Museum

1989 was a long time ago. Chris Yeung considers its relevance today.

This time in 1989, Hong Kong was blanketed by an air of anxiety when the death of former Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang on April 15 precipitated a political crisis manifested by student-led demonstrations in Beijing. It soon spread to Hong Kong and other major Chinese cities. The protracted stand-off between protestors and the divided leadership ended when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4. The rest is history.
 
25 years on, images of the tragic events in China in the summer of 1989 are still vivid in the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people, and the history of Tiananmen relevant in the city’s development since then – and in the near future. On June 4 every year since 1989, tens of thousands of people turned up at the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong Island to pay tribute to the victims. This year is no exception.
 
Yearning
It is not difficult to understand the so-called June 4 complex. Five years after the sealing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the yearnings for democracy, free press and clean society by Beijing students echoed the hopes – and fears – of Hong Kong people about their post-1997 fate. Driven by a feeling of patriotism, a sense of justice and shared destiny, Hong Kongers held rallies and collected donations from fellow citizens to support the Beijing students. At the height of the pro-democracy movement, more than one million people joined a march on Hong Kong Island. Not surprisingly, the bloody crackdown had triggered a fresh exodus of Hong Kong people to overseas destinations.
 
The yearnings for democracy, free press and clean society by Beijing students had echoed the hopes – and fears – of Hong Kong people about their post-1997 fate.
 
For many Chinese in Hong Kong and other parts of the world, June 4 remains a symbol of their dream for a democratic, free China they hope will come true.
 
To the seven million Hongkongers, June 4 has become even more pertinent as the city’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty nears its 17th anniversary. The wisdom of the words of late Szeto Wah, one of the leading lights of the city’s pro-democracy movement, shines even brighter. Szeto, who founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, said: “Hong Kong will have no democracy if China does not have democracy.”
 
The Alliance, branded by Beijing as subversive, has inaugurated the June 4 Museum at a commercial building in Tsim Sha Tsui in April to mark the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen.
 
Symbolism matters
The significance of the museum and the Alliance is more symbolic than substantive as the pro-democracy activists and Hong Kong people know well there is practicable little they can do to turn China into a democracy. But they also understand that keeping the candles at Victoria Park alight on June 4 will send a strong reminder to the ruling Party what “one country, two systems” policy means.
 
This is plainly because any memorial activities of the pro-democracy movement in 1989 are still prohibited in the mainland. With the communist leadership hardening their stance on Hong Kong affairs since the 500,000-strong July 1 rally in 2003 (and more so in recent years), the annual June 4 commemoration has been given new meaning in the context of “one country, two systems.”
 
Amid fears of “mainlandisation” and increased meddling of Beijing in the city’s internal affairs, there is a marked change of mood in some quarters of the society over the interface between the mainland and Hong Kong in recent years.
 
While causing inconvenience such as congested public transport and shopping arcades, the massive influx of mainland visitors has given rise to jitters about Hong Kong becoming more like a mainland city.
 
True, the activists who hoisted the Union Jack and raised such banners as “Hong Kong autonomous movement” only represent a tiny fraction of the populace. They reflect a simmering sense of unease about the increased momentum of integration between the mainland and the city in the last decade.
 
Keeping the candles at Victoria Park alight on June 4 will send a strong reminder to the ruling Party what “one country, two systems” policy means.
 
The change of mood coincides with the gradual dilution of the feel-good feeling towards state leaders and the central government since the handover. This is primarily because the positive perception of people towards Beijing, arising from China’s economic success, has been cancelled out by a blitz of negative publicity about the mainland’s dismal human rights record and frictions in mainland-Hong Kong relations over issues including tourism.
 
Memories fading?
With the passage of time, stories about the June 4 crackdown may have become marginalized in newspaper headlines in favour of more recent human rights violations. The mysterious death of a labour activist Li Wangyang in Hunan, who died of “being committed suicide,” at a hospital in 2012, triggered a massive public outcry in Hong Kong. Li was found dead shortly after he gave an interview to a reporter from the Hong Kong-based Cable TV.
 
Meanwhile, media coverage of the plight of civil rights campaign activists - including Hu Jia, Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia - add to negative news on media oppression and corruption.  This is a harsh reminder to the people about the dark side of a rising China.
Make no mistake. Hong Kong people, including the pro-democracy Alliance, are resigned to the reality that there is little they can do in fighting for justice for mainland activists who lost their lives and freedom for merely expressing their views. Many feel adamant they must make the best of the freedom for dissenting views in the city, made possible under the policy of “one country, two systems,” to speak the truth before it is too late.
 
June 4 still matters
From that perspective, the June 4 commemoration represents not just a show of people’s aspiration for a free, democratic China but the reaffirmation of their right of freedom of expression under the “one country, two systems” constitutional framework.
 
In many aspects, the prospect of a free, democratic China remains as bleak as 25 years ago.
 
The Communist Party’s paranoia about people power does not augur well for Hong Kong’s move towards universal suffrage. While rejecting demands from the city’s pan-democratic camp for a universal suffrage system that meets international standards, Beijing has set out as a non-negotiable political principle the chief executive must “love China, love Hong Kong” and that he or she must not confront the central authorities.
Admittedly, there is little room for optimism that the Hong Kong view about universal suffrage will prevail at the end of the Great Debate. But like the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, Hong Kong people show no sign of compromising on what they believe to be right - and good for the city and the nation.
 
 
 
Chris Yeung, formerly editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post, is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. 
He writes on Greater China issues.
 

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