June 4th in Hong Kong

June 10, 2010 — Last Friday was June 4th, the twenty-first anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square student pro-democracy protests. Since the early 1990s, this day has been the occasion of the largest annual demonstration in Hong Kong. On Friday, over 150,000 people (according to local estimates) crowded into Victoria Park on the north side of Hong Kong Island to commemorate this event. It was the largest turnout ever recorded in Hong Kong for a Tiananmen anniversary rally. Two friends of mine and I were among the crowd.

In the weeks leading up to June 4th, I had heard a lot about this event and was curious to see just how far the freedoms of assembly and speech can be pushed inside this “Special Administrative Region” of China. Even before the handover in 1997, Hong Kong had long been known for its tumultuous local politics and heady street protests. Not much has changed. During my year here I have seen televised news coverage of demonstrations against such things as unpopular court verdicts and the proposed razing of villages in the New Territories to install a new rail line. There have also been numerous pro-democracy rallies led by members of the Hong Kong legislature over the touchy issues of electoral reform and executive control. However, all of these events pale in comparison to the annual June 4th demonstrations.

From the outset, I noticed that even the terminology of what is being memorialized is more delicate and subdued than in western accounts. Chinese people, even in Hong Kong, rarely refer to what happened in Beijing in the summer of 1989 as the Tiananmen Square “massacre,” “crackdown” or “uprising.” Nor do they even speak of it simply as “Tiananmen Square.” Instead, they usually call it the “June 4th Incident” referring to the last day of military operations when the protests were finally quelled. Or they merely say “June 4th,” similarly to the way Americans invoke the date September 11th, the mere mention of which brings instant collective understanding. For reform-minded Chinese in Hong Kong and the mainland, this is their date that lives in infamy.

In 1989, the brutal response of the Chinese government to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations sent chills through Hong Kong. This was natural since the territory had always existed on borrowed time, its administrators and residents knowing full well that when the lease of the New Territories ran out in 1997 Britain would have to hand it over to China. During World War II, Chiang Kai-shek had made no secret of his desire to take back the territory as soon as possible. In contrast, after 1949 the communist leadership of the People’s Republic cultivated lukewarm relations with Hong Kong; respecting the territory’s colonial sovereignty while waiting patiently for its time to run out. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping met to formalize the “Joint Declaration” that began the process of British disengagement from the territory that would culminate in the handover thirteen years later. Initially many Hong Kong people were cautiously optimistic about Deng’s “Four Modernizations” following Mao’s long reign. The insanity of the Cultural Revolution was over and China’s new economic liberalization, combined with its outreach to the rest of the world, seemed to bode well for Hong Kong’s still uncertain future. This optimism was crushed in the summer of 1989 and a new sense of fear and anger set in. June 4th was a shocking reversal from the direction in which Beijing had seemed to be headed. Where was China now going and to what exact fate was Hong Kong being abandoned?

The protests in Hong Kong that followed the Tiananmen Square demonstration were especially energetic. Indeed, Hong Kong was the only place other than Taiwan, where Chinese people not living abroad could publically continue the pro-democracy movements begun in Beijing. Of course the protests in Hong Kong were not just a show of solidarity with pro-democracy people in the mainland but were also directed at the colonial government and expressed the helplessness that many residents of the territory felt about their own uncertain future.

Since 1997, the protests have continued unabated and have actually increased. From a practical standpoint, they are a good way to gauge the true level of autonomy from China that exists in the new Hong Kong SAR. My own observation is that it is substantial but highly conditional. Clearly there is no way that these protests could be outlawed in Hong Kong (as they unequivocally are across the border in the mainland) but how far Beijing is willing to let them go in Hong Kong is never entirely clear. Indeed, the HKSAR government walks a fine line. Some exiled dissidents have been allowed into the territory to attend the rallies, but the most wanted are forbidden to enter. Replicas of the Goddess of Democracy statue (the white plaster model of a woman lifting a torch with both hands that was first displayed by student protesters in Beijing) were often seized by the HK Police in the days before June 4th. The reasons given were bureaucratic rather than political (fitting for Hong Kong) and usually listed safety violations and failure to obtain the proper permits. The rally organizers, many of them students, cleverly hid multiple statues in safe houses around the city. In one case, when a publically displayed statue was confiscated, a young woman wrapped in a white robe, wearing face paint, and raising a paper maché torch stepped up to take its place. The whole thing was quite dramatic, though the police and protesters alike seemed remarkably well-behaved and restrained. The Chinese authorities kept out of it, for the most part, but the HKSAR government did acquiesce in at least one sense by preventing some of the more inflammatory exiles from entering the territory to speak at the demonstration.

On Friday evening, before the demonstration, I met my friends at a restaurant in Causeway Bay a few blocks from Victoria Park. The sun was setting and the air was cool but with a good dose of summer humidity. The MTR was absolutely packed with people, more than I have ever seen. I waited in the queue on the Admiralty MTR platform and was finally able to board the fifth train that passed through. The streets of Causeway were like New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In fact, the only thing that I have seen in Hong Kong that has come close to drawing such a crowd is the fireworks display over the harbor during Chinese New Year. Many of the streets were closed to traffic and filled with art displays, performers, and folded tables covered with pamphlets and petitions manned by young activists. The police were few and far between.

After dinner, we followed the crowds to Victoria Park. It was about 8PM and the sun had set; the lights of the surrounding skyscrapers compensating somewhat for the cloudy, starless night. In the middle of the park, a sound stage was set up and enormous banners were hung from metal scaffolding on either side of the park. At one end of the assembly ground was an old statue of the park’s namesake, Queen Victoria seated on her throne with crown, scepter and orb and a stately, serene gaze. Facing her at the other end was a large, brightly lit plaster replica of the Goddess of Democracy, her arms outstretched and her hair and robe flowing. Seeing these two female archetypes within a stone’s throw of each other was incredible moment; Hong Kong’s past, present, and uncertain future poignantly captured in a single instant.

The demonstration continued as speaker after speaker took the stage. The speeches were all in Chinese and some of them went on a bit too long. Thankfully, these were interspersed with performances by Chinese musicians (some of these were quite moving). The keynote speech was by Xiong Yan, one of the original 1989 student leaders and now an exiled activist living in the US. He declared that the annual Hong Kong demonstration must continue since it is the only public response on Chinese soil preventing the Beijing government from wiping the memory of the Tiananmen massacre from the pages of history. As he and the others spoke, everyone in the crowd held lit candles. Tens of thousands of flickering specks of light stretched from one end of the park to the other. It was indeed quite a sight (see below). I expected the crowd to be mostly students but it was much more diverse. Many of them were young adults, but there were also middle-aged and elderly people and lots of families with small children. The crowd was overwhelmingly Chinese with a few gweilo like me here and there. When the demonstration ended we filed out into the street. People were calm and quiet as the police corralled the crowds along the main avenues sealed off to motor traffic. Again, there were surprisingly few police and not a single one in riot gear (though surely these were waiting nearby but out of sight). People filed into the MTR and onto buses, forming orderly queues as usual. By midnight I was home.

The June 4th demonstration was a remarkable event. I was amazed and impressed that such a protest could take place in Hong Kong, which is technically within the People’s Republic of China. Beijing knows well that it is politically unviable to prevent this demonstration. It may rule the mainland with an iron hand, but Hong Kong is different—it always has been—and it jealously guards it legal, economic, and administrative autonomy. To violate Hong Kong’s special status would in the long run do China more harm than good. Like the British before them, China’s leaders don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. In fact, they don’t even want to ruffle its feathers as long as it behaves. So they tolerate a political protest that is so public, bold, and accusatory toward the government that it would be unthinkable anywhere inside the mainland. Freedom of speech and assembly does indeed exist in Hong Kong and is regularly exercised by its people. Friday night was the most dramatic example of this but certainly not the only one. In fact, last week the South China Morning Post published excerpts from the newly released diaries of Li Peng, the premier of China during the 1989 protests and the individual most closely associated with the government crackdown. Apparently, the diaries are quite revealing and their authenticity has been corroborated with other reliable sources. Clearly the release of the diaries was timed to coincide with the twenty-first anniversary of the protests.

Yet despite all this, Hong Kong is not free to do whatever it wants and, though its bounds are considerable, if the HKSAR government does overstep then the authorities in Beijing will surely intervene. Hong Kong officials seem to know where the line of tolerance is and how far they can let their people go. In the end, it remains a delicate balancing act in which each side has much to gain or lose. I would wager that the limits have all been agreed upon ahead of time.

For images of the demonstration see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/8083971.stm

June 4th anniversary demonstration at Victoria Park, Hong Kong Island