Although 28 years have passed, the people of Hong Kong still have vivid and unforgettable memories of the June 4 crackdown, and tens of thousands of our fellow citizens gathered at Victoria Park on Sunday night, just like they have every year since 1989, to hold the annual candlelight vigil to mourn those who were killed on that fateful night in Beijing in 1989.
However, this year’s vigil was in fact a bit different from the past. And the difference is not the fact that the light from smartphones have replaced real candles during the event.
Nor are we referring to a recent poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) that the percentage of respondents who are against seeking vindication of the June 4 crackdown is at 27 percent, an 11-year high.
In fact, the reason this year’s vigil is different from the previous ones is that there is a fundamental change of attitude among some of our young people.
For the first time, a pro-democracy student union in one of our leading universities issued a public statement before the vigil calling on the people of Hong Kong to stop organizing or participating in any commemoration activity of the June 4 crackdown from now on because the incident itself is no longer relevant to, nor holds any significance for, young people in this city.
Issued by the student union of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the statement urges people to focus on fighting for democracy in Hong Kong and standing up against Beijing’s interference rather than spend time and energy on something that doesn’t concern our society any more, i.e. seeking vindication of the June 4 incident.
The statement was provocative and also touched a nerve because over the years, even the pro-Beijing camp or indigenous leftist groups in Hong Kong don’t dare to openly urge the public not to take part in any June 4 commemoration activity.
True, as our city has witnessed a rapid rise in nativist sentiment, particularly among the younger generation, in recent years, our young people’s attitude toward the June 4 crackdown has also undergone some changes. Many have become indifferent to it.
And it is against this background that the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and student unions of several universities publicly split with the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China a couple of years ago over the official stance and main theme of the June 4 candlelight vigil and started holding their own ceremonies to commemorate the massacre.
However, it is the first time that a student union has openly called on the public to put the entire incident behind them altogether.
Of course, the opinion of the CUHK student union only represents a minority view. According to the same HKU poll cited above, 75 percent of young people in Hong Kong aged between 18 and 29 are in favor of seeking vindication of the June 4 incident.
Yet, the complete indifference or even callousness toward the 1989 crackdown expressed by the CUHK student union is still alarming. And there is also an undertone to their statement: they find the June 4 incident irrelevant because they no longer regard themselves as Chinese.
When asked by the media whether he was bothered by the CUHK student union’s statement, Lee Cheuk-yan, secretary general of the Alliance, shrugged it off by saying that he didn’t see any association between being patriotic and being eager to attend the June 4 candlelight vigil.
As he put it, anybody can participate in the event and demand vindication of the incident for the sake of pursuing justice and standing up against tyranny, which are universally embraced values. Whether you love your country or identify yourself as Chinese or not, he said, is not the issue.
We could not disagree more with Lee. It is because the June 4 crackdown was a tragedy that took place on Chinese soil, and the people in Hong Kong are attending the candlelight vigil to pay their tribute because they care, and the reason why they care is because they think of themselves as Chinese and love their country, and that is why they have remained so distressed by what happened to their own people on their own soil on June 4, 1989.
In other words, behind the righteous indignation of the majority of Hongkongers at the June 4 crackdown is in fact a strong sense of national identity as Chinese.
As such, we believe any attempt to dissociate patriotism from June 4 commemoration activities in order to please localist groups and swim with the nativist tide would not only betray the initial cause of the Alliance but would also be dangerous to society, as it might further embolden radical groups or even fuel separatism.
As the “Tiananmen mothers” have continued to demand over the years, seeking “truth, compensation and accountability” is the first basic step to vindicating the June 4 incident.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 5
Translation by Alan Lee
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