A candlelight vigil commemorating the 30th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on student-led demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was attended by tens of thousands in Hong Kong, with young and old alike gathered to mark what many see as a seminal event in modern Chinese history.
Crowds gathered on the damp football fields of Victoria Park where they swayed to protest songs with candles in hand and chanted slogans. Some could be seen shedding tears or heard sobbing as a eulogy to the dead rang out over loudspeakers.
Hundreds of miles away in the city where the violent events unfolded, however, it was as if nothing had ever happened, according to news reports.
Three decades on, mention of the violent repression is heavily censored in Chinese news and social media as perhaps the country’s biggest political taboo. Hong Kong, along with Macau, are the only places on Chinese soil where commemorations are held each year. The date continues to resonate with Hongkongers amid rising distrust of mainland authorities.
“The memory of June 4 scares me,” said Tiffany, a 23-year-old university student who attended the vigil. “Seeing these people still alive makes me very touched,” she said as a former student leader gave a stirring speech. “Being here reminds me that the Chinese government is so inhumane and, recently, they are tightening the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
Many see the city’s culture and autonomy under increasing strain by encroachments from Beijing, while the perceived erosion of political and media freedoms enjoyed within Hong Kong, governed as a special “one country, two systems” administrative region since 1997, has stirred anxieties.
Beijing has promised the system will remain in place until 2047, but activists say they ultimately fear a repeat of the bloody events of 1989 one day playing out in their city.
In April 1989, thousands of university students launched protests against perceived corruption within the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). Spurred by liberal ideals and the death of popular reformist leader Hu Yaobang, they called for a cleaner and more open government while demanding reforms that included freedom of speech and the press.
Up to a million people reportedly took part in student-led marches throughout May while hunger strikes were held to galvanize the government to accede to popular demands for democratic rights. Students occupied Tiananmen Square, where a 33-foot “Goddess of Democracy” sculpture modeled on America’s Statue of Liberty was erected using papier-mâché.
The government held nationally televised discussions with a student dialogue group but talks broke down on May 18 without a resolution or any concessions granted. The protests divided the then-CPC leadership between reformers who backed general secretary Zhao Ziyang and hardliners who supported premier Li Peng.
Li announced martial law on May 20 and prominently backed the use of force to clear the square, leading to what would later be officially defined as a “counter-revolutionary riot.” Zhao, a key architect of China’s economic reform program, was sidelined and purged on May 26 for sympathizing with the students and died while under house arrest in 2005.
On the night of June 3, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to advance on the square. Witnesses and rights groups claim the army opened fire on unarmed students, leaving hundreds, perhaps more, dead. To this day, no Chinese leader has ever expressed remorse for the violence and authorities have yet to release an official death toll.
Though protests had been peaceful as they unfolded over weeks, fighting erupted that night as demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at army vehicles as troops moved in. Chinese soldiers were beaten and many perished in the tumult. Dozens of buses, police cars and armored trucks were torched by angry mobs as clashes ensued.
As the smoke cleared on the morning of June 4, one of the most recognized photographs of the twentieth century was captured. The image of a lone man standing in a white shirt blocking a convoy of tanks as they rolled down Chang’an Avenue became a global symbol of the protest movement’s moral courage, but remains heavily censored within China.
The bloodletting cast a pall over the economic reform process initiated years earlier by China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. News of the violence spread and mass solidarity protests were held in Hong Kong, then still a British colony, where student movements had raised millions of dollars in support of their pro-democracy brethren.
The episode stoked heightened distrust of mainland authorities with Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule then less than a decade away. Under the “one country, two systems” formula, the city was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy until 2047 and allowed to retain an independent judicial system and democratic rights not enjoyed on the mainland.
While the promise of autonomy had largely appeared to be holding over the last two decades, the Hong Kong government’s ongoing push to change the city’s extradition laws has stoked unease among pro-democracy lawmakers and activists, as well as foreign diplomats and the international business community.
If amendments backed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam are passed, fugitives captured in the special administrative region could be sent to mainland China for trial, a precedent that lawyers and judges have called a stark challenge to the city’s British-based common law system through which extraditions hinge on the presumption of a fair trial.
Opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong, as well as democracy activists, have objected to the proposal, pointing to China’s poor human rights record and flawed criminal justice system, where conviction rates are over 99% and arrested people are often subject to arbitrary charges and held incommunicado in extrajudicial detention for months.
Concerns over rule of law and due process in the mainland heightened in 2015 when five Hong Kong men who sold books critical of Chinese leaders disappeared after they were separately abducted from the city and abroad by Chinese agents. The men were taken into mainland custody and allegedly forced to make scripted confessions on state television.
Hong Kong’s largely pro-Beijing legislature is soon expected to adopt the measures, known as the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill. The American Chamber of Commerce, and several foreign governments, including the United States, have characterized the proposal as undermining or threatening to Hong Kong’s rule of law.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a US congressional body that monitors the national security implications of trade with China, recently warned that the extradition bill could provide grounds for a “re-examination” of US ties with the city as per the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.
That act enables the US to engage Hong Kong as a separate entity from the rest of China in terms of trade, investment, immigration, law enforcement, and international treaties. Under the law, an American president is entitled to suspend that special treatment if Hong Kong is deemed “not sufficiently autonomous.”
Some believe the US legislation could become a bargaining chip in the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing. Analysts say rescinding the law would deal a deadly blow to Hong Kong’s trade and financial system, while also hurting the hundreds of international businesses and American companies headquartered in the city.
“Hong Kong people would like the Western countries to speak up on their behalf, but they are also aware that if you get rid of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act, this may well damage Hong Kong’s economy and eventually hurt their interests as well,” Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times.
Andy Chan, an activist and founder of a small pro-independence party that was banned by the Hong Kong government last year, is one of several voices who have called on US President Donald Trump to rescind Hong Kong’s special treatment and expand its trade war to punish Beijing for its perceived erosion of the city’s autonomy and democratic freedoms.
In a controversial speech at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club last August, Chan, 27, denounced China as “a threat to all free peoples in the world.” Local officials in February ruled against an appeal to squash the ban on his outlawed Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) over concerns that it could endorse violence as a means to spilt from Beijing.
Both the mainland and Hong Kong governments condemned Chan’s speech. Victor Mallet, a former Asia news editor at the Financial Times who hosted the press club event as acting FCC president, was effectively expelled from the city last October after being denied work and tourist visas, an unprecedented move that sparked press freedom concerns.
Concerns over declining political freedoms again rose to the fore in April when key leaders of the so-called Occupy Movement were jailed for inciting public nuisance in connection with protests that paralyzed parts of the Asian financial center for 79 days in late 2014, the largest and most protracted episode of civil disobedience in Hong Kong’s history.
“Public opinion in Hong Kong has become more fractured since 2014. The core divide remains between those who want to work with the Community Party and those who want to push for democracy. But the pro-democracy camp has split over how hard to oppose Beijing,” said Ben Bland, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute.
“The marked increase in repression from Beijing and the Hong Kong government has made life very difficult for democracy activists. Avenues for pushing back are being closed off rapidly, while the costs of opposition are rising dramatically,” Bland, author of the book Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow, told Asia Times.
“We are all very worried about the erosion of our core values and our lifestyles,” said Cheng. “There is a lot of resentment against the Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong government. Beijing’s basic position is to use excuses like national sovereignty, national security, combatting independence as rationales and justifications for crackdowns.
“The Chinese authorities are using these excuses to redefine the ‘one country, two systems’ model to reduce the allowances, the space granted to Hong Kong people,” said the pro-democracy scholar. “People understand now that you have to stand up and be counted in order to protect the freedoms and core values that we all cherish.”
While public confidence in China’s commitment to preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy has ebbed in recent years, the former British colony continues to enjoy freedoms unthinkable on the mainland and any Tiananmen-style crackdown on local demonstrations – a palpable fear among some Hongkongers – remains in all likelihood an improbable outcome.
Many are, however, unnerved that Beijing appears more convinced than ever that its actions on June 4 served the national interest. In a rare acknowledgment of the state’s role in the 1989 crackdown, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe recently linked China’s “stability and development” with its “correct” handling of the student-led protests.
A state-media editorial published this week similarly branded as a “political success” efforts to suppress the events of June 4, claiming that a “policy of avoiding arguing” contributed to the country’s economic take-off. The piece argued, moreover, that the experience of Tiananmen served as a “vaccination” against “any major political turmoil in the future.”
As critics accuse China – now vastly more powerful than it was three decades ago – of systematizing enforced disappearances and extralegal detentions, suppressing rights activism and presiding over digital mass surveillance technologies, long-held hopes that Beijing would reverse its verdict on the student movement today seem utterly misplaced.
Some of Hong Kong’s vigil-goers, however, choose to take a long view. “Nothing is forever. I believe that one day China will say sorry and admit to the massacre, but I believe that won’t happen in my generation,” Yen, a 22-year-old university student, told Asia Times. “Maybe it will take longer,” she said as her two friends nodded in agreement.
“I’m studying history at university and I think it is inevitable that China will more tightly control Hong Kong. It is going on. It’s inevitable.” Elsewhere across the sea of flickering candles, generations of activists interviewed by Asia Times said they would continue to call for accountability for the events of June 4.
“The Chinese government should give an apology and open a formal investigation to find who was responsible for this massacre,” said Teresa Yip, who is in her late 40s and a volunteer with the Tiananmen Mothers activist group. “They really fear the power of the people. They are very scared that people can organize together.
“Frankly speaking, I think a lot of people have fear, too,” she said.