It’s a sad commentary on the petty political divisions that continue to tear at Hong Kong when different pro-democracy groups take to public wrangling about the meaning and effectiveness of the annual June 4 candlelight vigil honouring those who died in and around Tiananmen Square twenty-seven years ago this Saturday.

What is there to argue about? All those who truly know their history and support democracy in Hong Kong or anywhere else should close their contentious mouths, pick up a candle and head to Victoria Park Saturday night. There should be no dispute about the frightful significance of June 4; the same should be true of the eloquent tribute to its victims that has become one of this city’s most moving and dignified traditions.

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Photo: Dan Garrett.

The vigil has been staged every year since China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, launched the bloody crackdown (which actually began on the night of June 3, 1989) with a military operation that carried over into the early-morning hours of June 4. In the end, the People’s Liberation Army forcibly cleared the square of the student-led demonstrators who had been camping there for nearly two months while demanding a more democratic China.

Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed, and the world recoiled in horror as contraband images of the massacre were broadcast internationally. The brutal nature of the Chinese regime was laid bare for all to see.

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Protesters and lawmakers rallied for democracy in China on Sunday. Photo: Dan Garrett.

In Hong Kong, then a British colony, more than one million protesters (in a city whose population at the time was only 5.7 million) took to the streets to register their revulsion at a military assault on defenceless students and also to express their fears for the city’s future under Chinese rule; only five years earlier British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang had inked the Sino-British Joint Declaration establishing July 1, 1997, as the date on which Hong Kong would be handed back to the motherland.

Hong Kong’s 1989 one-million-person march was, and still is, by far the largest demonstration this city has ever seen. It was organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the same organisation inexplicably likened this past week to “pimps and bawds in a brothel” by a Shue Yan University student union editorial board that clearly needs a lesson in both history and manners.

The assembly Hong Kong after Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The assembly Hong Kong after Tiananmen Square crackdown. Photo: 1989年的傳真.

For the past 27 years, the Alliance has also been the chief organiser of the candlelight memorial that is now being shunned by Hong Kong student leaders as old-hat and out-of-touch with the aspirations of the city’s younger generation.

Sparked by the withdrawal in April of the Hong Kong Federation of Students as one of the sponsors of the vigil, various student unions have refused to attend, opting instead to stage alternative events that they claim will have more meaning than the traditional one at Victoria Park.

The president of the student union at Chinese University of Hong Kong, Chow Shue-fung, complained about the “rigid format of the Victoria Park vigil”—by which he presumably meant that those attending were expected to bring and light and candle and then sing songs to commemorate those who died in the crackdown.

Reflecting the recent rise in localist sentiment, he also contended that the Alliance is wrong to link Hong Kong to any democracy movement across the border.

“I don’t think the vindication of the 1989 movement should be linked to building democracy in China,” Chow said. “To go further, vindication of the 1989 movement and building democracy in China are not moral responsibilities of Hong Kong people.”

Thus, the CUHK student union has teamed up with several other student unions—including those at Shue Yan and the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts—to host an alternative forum on the night of June 4 at the CUHK university mall. The forum’s title—“On Hong Kong’s future through the meaning of June 4th”—also has a stubbornly localist bent, making Hong Kong, not China, the central point of the discussion.

The University of Hong Kong student union has announced plans to hold a similar June 4 forum at HKU’s Sun Yat-sen Place, and yet another forum, this one to be held at Times Square in Causeway Bay, will be hosted by student unions at Polytechnic University, Lingnan University and the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

HKFS represenatives at a previous June 4 vigil for the Tiananmen Massacre. Photo: HKFP.
HKFS representatives at a previous June 4 vigil for the Tiananmen Massacre. Photo: HKFP.

So alternatives to the candlelight vigil will abound on Saturday as Hong Kong’s younger generation of rebels insist on putting greater distance between themselves and what they see as the tired old guard of pan-democrats and their feeble marches, slogans and vigils.

But this time they chose the wrong target. Since 180,000 people gathered for the first candlelight vigil in 1990, June 4 has become a date on which Hong Kong reminds the world of the horror that transpired in Beijing as PLA tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush China’s fledging democracy movement. Attendance has fluctuated over the years but has never fallen below 35,000 and, since the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in 2009, has averaged nearly 165,000 a year.

There are other June 4 commemorations around the world, but none of them compare in size, symbolism and poignancy to the one held in Victoria Park. And none of them takes place in any other city in China, underscoring for going on 19 years now Hong Kong’s special status and special freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula that is part and parcel of the handover agreement.

If student leaders don’t see the “meaning” of any of this, they need to go back to class and try harder.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.