This June, our nation mourned the one-year anniversary of the death of a protester who lost his life during the still on-going resistance movement in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, South Koreans commemorated the 33rd anniversary of their triumphant democratisation movement.
Despite police suppression and intimidation, tens of thousands of Hongkongers queued up for hours on end to pay respects to “Raincoat Man” Leung Ling-kit last week, filling the streets from Admiralty to Central until close to midnight. Causeway Bay, Tin Shui Wai and Tuen Mun were also flooded with white flowers, handmade altars and tears.
“When that day comes… when that day comes… the faces that we miss, and the agonising memories, as well as my short-lived youth, will not have been an empty dream… ”
These words sung by Koreans during their June Democracy Movement of 1987 are now tragically fitting for Hong Kong, which continues to lose more young protestors after the death of Raincoat Man, including 15 year-old student Chan Yin-lam and 22 year-old student Chow Tsz-lok.
The Korea known by Hong Kong millennials like myself has always been democratic. But the free Korea taken for granted today is in fact the result of a lengthy struggle by uncountable ordinary Koreans.
Like Hongkongers during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Koreans were fed up with their government’s continual delay in implementing electoral reforms. Their president was selected through “indirect elections” by an electoral college, comparable to Hong Kong’s “small-circle elections”.
Throughout the 80s, many Korean university students campaigned against dictatorship. In early 1987, 21 year-old Park Jong-chul was killed in police custody after cops tortured him with waterboarding methods. When details of his death came to light in late May, Koreans rose up in revolt. So much tear gas was fired daily that it was dubbed the “Seoul perfume”.
One of the battles was fought at Yonsei University in early June, which Koreans have compared to the Hong Kong police’s violent suppressions at different universities last November, most notably during the Chinese University conflict and the infamous 12-day police siege of Polytechnic University.
At Yonsei University, student Lee Han-yeol was fatally struck on the head by a police tear-gas canister. Fuelled by grief, millions of Koreas stormed the streets in protest, just like Hongkongers who participated in the historical demonstration of 2 million people after Raincoat Man’s death.
These mass rallies at the end of June 1987 saw the participation of Koreans from all walks of life, and the government finally yielded under public pressure. A list of reforms were declared, including the immediate introduction of direct elections, establishing the democratic system still upheld in Korea today.
But the happy ending has yet to arrive for Hongkongers, even after numerous mass marches of millions staged within a single year. The government is not only far from softening its attitude towards demands for democracy, but it has – in fact – clamped down even further on civil liberties.
We must remember, however, that Koreans had been shedding blood and tears long before June 1987, in similar ways that Hongkongers have done in the past year.
Hundreds of Koreans who fought for democracy were reported to be illegally detained and tortured by the police in 1986 – a year before the dawn of freedom.
Similarly in Hong Kong, arbitrary arrests and police torture of detainees are becoming old news.
In 1986, a scandal broke out when a young female labour organizer from Seoul came forward against a cop who sexually assaulted her. The officer was never indicted, despite being fired.
Likewise, the Hong Kong police have been embroiled in sexual abuse and gang-rape scandals. Just this week, another underage girl testified against sexual violence allegedly experienced at a police station.
A newspaper sent shockwaves through Seoul in January 1987 with an article regarding young activists who died within a 15 month period, under what opposition politicians called “mysterious circumstances”. The police had recorded all of them as suicide cases.
In a similar fashion, the public in Hong Kong has been alarmed by the number of recent cases that police listed as “suicides”, involving young people found dead in circumstances many claim to be dubious.
Most significantly, local movements of democratisation in both nations have been demonised as being linked to “external forces” by those in power. Ordinary South Koreans fighting for democracy were persecuted under false claims that they were serving North Korea, while those in Hong Kong are absurdly accused of being supported by “Western powers”.
Seeing the South Korea we know today, it is difficult to believe its dark history. But look how far they have come in this short time. Koreans are now using their free speech to support Hongkongers who are fighting for the same cause they once knew so well.
Their lesson for Hongkongers is: that day will surely come – if we do not give up our struggle, no matter how high the price.
Some 2,000 Koreans lost their lives in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, but it still did not bring about reforms. Nonetheless, anti-dictatorship sentiments never fully settled after the revolt, and it paved the way for the 1987 struggle which did lead to democracy – almost a decade later.
After Hongkongers’ Umbrella Movement failed to topple China’s puppet government, everyone had thought our strength was used up. But we are stronger than anyone realised – including ourselves. Only five years later, Hongkongers mounted an even larger resistance movement which shook the world, with no clear leader but our own conscience.
Changes do happen, but they happen extremely slowly. Yet human lives are very short. Yonsei University’s Lee Han-yeol never lived to vote in a free election. Neither did Hong Kong’s Raincoat Man. And who can guarantee that any of us will? But one thing is sure – if we do not fight, change will never come.
Let us not forget that most of the freedoms we take for granted all over the world today were not enjoyed by our predecessors. There were brave souls before us who sacrificed lives in struggle for a better future – the world in which we now live. But the majority of these nameless heroes never lived to see this better world they fought for.
Their battles were deemed unwinnable. The oppressors they struggled against crushed as many of these dreamers as possible, and time took care of the rest. Many of them died in despair, feeling that the day of liberation might never come.
But no dictatorship has ever lasted forever – so statistics are on our side. If we can be as persistent as our Korean neighbours were, there is no doubt that a free Hong Kong is waiting for us, just around the corner.
Of course, we all hope to bear witness to that victorious day. But even if we cannot, when that day comes, no matter how far down the road, all this will have been worth it. Raincoat Man’s life, your life, my life – none of it would be in vain.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. No tyranny is invincible. That day will surely come.
Hongkongers, fight on!