Is Hong Kong Forgetting to Remember June Fourth?

Defying sabotage, the world’s still one and only museum dedicated to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 re-opened as scheduled in late April in Hong Kong. Replicas of the Goddess of Democracy are on most college campuses here. And, over the past week, the Pillar of Shame, a sculptural tribute to the ordinary people who perished in the crackdown, was crowded with visitors.

In sharp contrast to anywhere else in China, Hong Kong has stood as a steadfast stronghold of remembrance of the massacre, protected by the territory’s political system that guarantees freedoms of assembly and expression. Every June 4, the commemorative vigil in the city’s Victoria Park strikes a defiant stance against the Chinese Communist Party’s official oblivion.

“Every anniversary, here is the only place in Chinese society where tens of thousands of votives stare down at the Communist Chinese regime,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, former Chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, an organization founded in 1989 to aid the Tiananmen students’ movement.

But now, 30 years on, Hong Kong’s struggle in keeping the memory alive is more difficult than at any time since the former British colony was retroceded to Chinese control in 1997, giving rise to the possibility that Beijing may finally succeed in snuffing out the last reminders of the bloody suppression.

Over the past few years, especially after the 2014 pro-democracy mass sit-in known as the Umbrella Movement, the Chinese central government has doubled down its incursion into Hong Kong politics. The National People’s Congress reinterpreted the city’s constitution to disqualify democratically-elected legislators. A bill is expected to pass the legislature to criminalize anyone who boos China’s national anthem as a means to voice dissent. And in recent weeks, two protest leaders who are charged with inciting a riot and have fled Hong Kong out of fear of political prosecution revealed that they have been in Germany under political asylum since last year.

And now activists are pulling out all the stops to fend off what they see as the greatest threat yet to the city’s freedoms and rule of law: a proposed amendment to the territory’s extradition law that would allow local residents to be tried in the mainland, where forced confessions and closed-door trials are the norm. If the law passes, theoretically organizers of the Victoria Park vigil, whose perennial rallying call is to end the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship, may tempt extradition to mainland courts.

Even absent the threat of reprisal from Beijing, collective memory risks being eroded given the lack of formalized records here. Details about the June Fourth crackdown are not included in most textbooks. So for decades the vigil has stood in as inter-generational family ritual-cum-civic education. After a three-year hiatus, the recent reopening of the June 4th Museum, which is operated by the Alliance, fills the void left by the city’s official narrative.

Over a weekend in May, the one-room museum housed in a high-rise in the popular shopping district of Mongkok was buzzing with visitors, surprisingly a predominantly young crowd with no living memory of Tiananmen.



A Visit to Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum

Amy Chung
Every Saturday in Hong Kong, volunteer curator and translator C.S. Liu helps guide visitors through the first permanent museum dedicated to the history of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 in Beijing.At the entrance to the June 4th...

College student Lenny Lo, 21, said it’s been her fight against the extradition bill that sparked her interest in finding out more at the museum. “I can see how we can draw a straight line from June Fourth to our fight now,” said Lo, looking forward to attending her first ever vigil at Victoria Park.

Yet, many of her peers will choose to stay away, as over the past years college groups have quit the vigil in droves.

As the Umbrella Movement thrust a new generation into political activism, the post-1989 Hong Kongers increasingly are charting the territory’s own pro-democracy movement and have come to see fighting for democracy in mainland China—the Alliance’s avowed goal—as not their burden to bear. They particularly bristle at the Alliance’s twinning of patriotism and pursuit of democracy because they pride themselves as Hong Kongers first and foremost rather than as Chinese nationals.

“I’m not in the mood for mourning,” said Jacky So, Student Union President at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), one of the most politically active campuses. So stopped attending the vigil three years ago. “That said, we can’t separate our local movements from Tiananmen, which after all was Hong Kong’s political awakening.”

Back then, an estimated 1.5 million people shook their political apathy and took to the streets in support of Beijing’s protesters. The crackdown represented a rude awakening—and a betrayal—for colonial Hong Kongers, as some of them only a few years before had advocated for a patriotic return of sovereignty to the mainland.

30 years later, many of those who once condemned the crackdown publicly have reneged on their stance, a reporter for the Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK found. In a TV interview, former film producer John Sham, a prominent figure in rallying support among the city’s film stars for the Beijing protests, shared his assessment on this “amnesia.”

“These folks are self-censoring,” said Sham. “As though it weren’t enough that they choose to self-censor, they also insist they have no choice on the matter!”

Whereas the dashed dreams of democracy forever scarred generations of pre-handover Hong Kongers, the younger generations feel more distance from Tiananmen but more attuned to the political turmoil closer to home.

The rift between generations of activists notwithstanding, all seem to agree that what matters the most is to pass on the established facts all but erased from China’s official history. To that end, CUHK’s student union has curated its own exhibit and mounted it at the foot of the faux bronze Goddess of Democracy statute that greets visitors at the campus subway stop. On the eve of the 30th anniversary, they plan to fan out and leaflet high school students about Tiananmen.

But the tightening political climate means some facts won’t see the light of day anytime soon. One of the Alliance’s founding members, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, had planned to publish a book detailing “Operation Yellow Bird,” a rescue mission that secreted more than 150 protest leaders out of China via Hong Kong to refuge in Europe, the U.S., and Canada. Chu scuttled his plan to publish for now as the proposed extradition bill could threaten those in Hong Kong who were involved.

On the evening of June 4, thousands of Hong Kongers still will gather to each raise a candle and commemorate Tiananmen. For many, it may feel more like sticking it to the man even as the chants of “reverse the verdict on June Fourth” sounds increasingly quixotic. For others, especially the younger generation, protesting is a way of grappling with the regime they’re up against.

Regardless, the oft-quoted line of Milan Kundera very much applies here: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”