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Politics

Hong Kong activists split on how to remember Tiananmen

Younger citizens increasingly see the territory's struggles as the top priority

The annual June 4 candlelight vigil attracted an estimated 110,000 people to Victoria Park, about 25,000 less than last year, according to the organizers. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG For nearly three decades, Hong Kong has kept the candles burning to commemorate the 1989 crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were killed by the Chinese military. This year, however, the lights were a bit dimmer.

The only major commemorative event for Tiananmen held on Chinese soil is increasingly being shunned by a younger generation disillusioned by Hong Kong's own problems. But as Beijing tightens its political grip on the former British colony, activists young and old are discovering a unifying cause: defending their civil freedoms.

FEWER CANDLES On the muggy evening of June 4, some 110,000 people gathered for the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park. It was the lowest turnout since 2008, with some 25,000 fewer people joining this year compared with last year, according to the organizer, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The police, which typically provide smaller numbers, put the figure at 18,000.

From left, pro-independence activist Andy Chan Ho-tin, political commentator Joseph Lian Yi-zheng and pro-democracy veteran Lee Cheuk-yan were among the speakers at a University of Hong Kong forum on June 4. (Photo by Jennifer Lo)

Referring to the lower turnout, alliance Chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan said it is "by no means easy to sustain a movement on such a scale for such a long period of time -- 28 years."

Making it even harder is the fact that more young people appear to be losing interest in commemorating Tiananmen. Student unions from several universities decided not to hold any commemorations this year, and even those that did took a low-key approach, opting against candles and singing.

Some of the students who led the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement -- which failed to bring about the hoped-for reforms -- have expressed skepticism over whether emotional gatherings can bring change. Pro-independence activists, meanwhile, have taken aim at the alliance's goal of building a democratic China, saying democratization at home takes precedence over building a free China.

The latter view is gaining particular traction.

For the third straight year, University of Hong Kong students organized an alternative rally to "rethink" the meaning of the June 4 crackdown. The event, which drew nearly 400 people, was scheduled so as to not clash with the main vigil, which started hours later.

Wong Ching-tak, president of the university's student union, said the early scheduling was not a nod of support for the vigil but simply a way of giving participants a choice about whether to go to Victoria Park. "This has to do with our identity as Hong Kongers, not Chinese," he said. "Unless there is a major change in this perception, there's little chance we will go to Victoria Park again."

A recent poll conducted by the university showed that only 58% of Hong Kong's citizens felt a sense of responsibility to promote democratic development on the mainland, down 4 percentage points from last year. Meanwhile, those who oppose trying to vindicate the protesters in the Tiananmen Square incident rose to 27%, the highest since 2006.

Keen to address these shifting attitudes, pro-democracy veteran Lee Cheuk-yan joined the university's Tiananmen event, becoming the first alliance member to do so. While he said that the Victoria Park vigils should continue the tradition of shouting slogans calling for the end of China's one-party rule, Lee said the alliance will review the event's format with an eye toward encouraging more participation among younger people.

"We've been walking on a tightrope in recent years," he said. "Perhaps a better way is to keep our format simple and original."

Political commentator Joseph Lian Yi-zheng said that for the vigil to remain relevant, it should include a broader range of voices from within the pro-democracy movement, including those of pro-independence activists. "June 4 has been an important resource in our fight for democracy," he said. "It will be a huge loss if it's fading away."

One organization that does not share that concern is the student union of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. It chose to have no association with the June 4 vigil this year, though seven colleges under the school organized an afternoon forum to discuss the merits of commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown.

Lawmaker Nathan Law Kwun-chung said at the forum that June 4 is relevant not only to China and Hong Kong, but also to the rest of the world. "In the past, people felt that China was a reclusive, authoritarian and suspicious regime," said Law, chairman of Demosisto, a pro-democracy party. "But as [China's] power grows ... more and more countries are kowtowing to [it], and turning to it as an alternative to democracy."

"June 4 is the most telling evidence of how despicable this regime is," said Law, who rose to prominence during the Umbrella Movement. "It reminds the world that the human rights issue in China is not resolved."

UPGRADE OR CENSORSHIP? China would just as soon see the events of 1989 erased from history. When the massively popular Sino Weibo microblogging service prevented overseas users from posting visuals on the site from June 3 through June 5, the country's internet-savvy population was quick to vent its frustration.

A screenshot of a notice on Sina Weibo, China's largest microblogging site, about the "systems upgrade" on June 3. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

"It probably has to do with what happened 28 years ago. This is stupid," wrote a Weibo user under a pseudonym. Wrote another, "If it hadn't been for the [blackout], I wouldn't have remembered what date it was."

Weibo attributed the disruption to a "systems upgrade," but the move was largely seen as a ban on public discussion of the Tiananmen crackdown, still a taboo subject on the mainland. In March, four Chinese activists were handed 15-year prison sentences for selling liquor with labels that punningly referred to the date of June 4, 1989.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman reiterated the official view that the Tiananmen crackdown was a "political disturbance" that "long ago reached a clear conclusion." She urged people to pay attention to the "positive changes" in Chinese society.

Human rights watchdogs criticize China for its censorship of history. "While [Chinese] President Xi Jinping preaches openness on the world stage, his government buries the truth about the Tiananmen Massacre through silence, denial and persecution of those who mark the occasion," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, encouraged Hong Kong activists young and old to overcome their differences. "Beijing benefits when democracy advocates are divided," she said. "Solidarity and support is an effective way to counter government propaganda."

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