There was a certain amount of malicious glee among the anti-democrats when some student unions and others decided to boycott this year’s annual vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre.

But Beijing’s cheerleaders might need to think a bit harder about what they wish for because the boycotters had reasons for their absence that go to the heart of what the Beijing fan club fears most.

None of those who stayed away supported Beijing’s action in suppressing the 1989 protests. They were motivated by the belief that it was not the responsibility of Hongkongers ‘to seek justice for the victims’, in other words they are using this as yet another opportunity to distance Hong Kong from the Mainland.

Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Union President Au Cheuk-hei handing out pamphlets on changes to the Chinese history curriculum outside the Tiananmen candlelight vigil in Victoria Park on June 4, 2018. Photo:

They insist that their focus is on the SAR, which means they are far less motivated to respond when things happen on the Mainland. The Beijing-lovers should not be pleased with this attitude. Indeed in all other circumstances they are quick to scurry around denouncing those distancing Hong Kong from the motherland and accuse them of advocating independence.

Meanwhile the vigil shunners proudly wear the badge of being ‘Hongkongers’ as though somehow they exist in a place which has the ability to determine its own destiny without reference to the nation of which it is part.

Or maybe, even more bizarrely, they believe that if they ignore what’s going on in the Mainland the powers in Beijing will ignore them. In this respect they echo the arguments of some anti-democrat weasels who urge Hong Kong people to be as quiet and inoffensive as possible because, they say, the more compliant they are, the more likely to receive lenient treatment from their masters in Beijing.

This is an equally fallacious argument because one thing dictatorships are really good at is sensing weakness. So if they come to think of Hong Kong people as being entirely passive they will not hesitate to stamp all over them. Indeed every time there is a lull in pro-democratic activity, the masters view it as an opportunity for another crackdown and for threatening to knock yet another hole in Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

The so-called Hongkongers provide unwitting encouragement. They are not only guilty of naivety but also of a serious failure to show solidarity with their mainland counterparts, who have made enormous sacrifices in the pursuit of liberty. Some of them are giants who will be remembered long after game-playing localists have deservedly been forgotten.

But, they argue weakly, the real point here is that they have better things to do. They are right in as much as there are indeed pressing issues to be tackled in Hong Kong but it’s not a binary choice. Showing solidarity with counterparts in the Mainland is – and this is what terrifies the authorities in Beijing – part of the same struggle.

The Chinese Communist Party is far happier dealing with these hapless Hongkongers as opposed to the kind of people who filled Victoria Park on June 4. The Party finds it hard to get their heads around the idea that those attending the vigil declare themselves to be patriots and demonstrate their love for the country as a whole, meaning its people and its culture, but not, of course the Party.

The depth of this commitment to the Chinese nation is always on full display at the June 4 vigils, where participants sing patriotic songs, perform Chinese rituals to mourn the dead and, unlike the fake patriots who get into a state about whether it’s any longer politically correct to speak Cantonese, the proceedings of this commemoration switch calmly between the use of Cantonese and Mandarin without anyone getting too bothered.


This depth of patriotism is alternatively puzzling and worrying for the Beijing flag-wavers who insist that they are the only truly “loyal” Chinese patriots, which they interpret as meaning meekly toeing whichever line is currently being followed by the Chinese Communist Party.

The significance of Hong Kong. a place that has never enjoyed democracy but has a history of liberty, is that many of its citizens have recognised that being in the only part where it is possible to do so, they have taken it upon themselves to be the awkward conscience of their brothers and sisters across China.

The students who think they are doing their best to defend Hong Kong’s interests by keeping away from wider national issues are in denial over the obvious fact that the liberty of the HKSAR cannot possibly just be safeguarded within Hong Kong without reference to the wider nation.

Hong Kong’s liberty poses a danger to the Chinese dictatorship which fears it will, at worst, become a virus spreading to the Mainland. China’s leaders understand the dangers here and will not hesitate to act in defence of one party rule. This is fully understood by those who attend the annual June 4 vigil but it is somehow missed by the students and young people who actually believe that caring about what happens on the Mainland contradicts their concern for Hong Kong.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship