Almost 32 years on from the Tiananmen Massacre that saw the Chinese military quash a student-led democratic movement in mainland China, there are fears authorities are moving to erase the memory of the crackdown in Hong Kong.

Those fears – the latest to emerge from the tumult of the past two years – come as one of China’s most famous exiled dissidents Wu’er Kaixi tells HKFP that he believes Hong Kong is on the frontline of a new “Cold War” between the US and China.

tiananmen massacre vigil 31st 2020 june 4 victoria park
Last year’s Victoria Park Tiananmen vigil. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Earlier this week, the government effectively banned the annual June 4 commemorative vigil at Victoria Park. Meanwhile, veteran activists who have demanded justice for the crackdown’s victims now find themselves in prison over peaceful demonstrations for democracy.

The move to block the annual Tiananmen commemoration is the latest in a series of steps taken to stifle the city’s pro-democracy movement under a sweeping national security law. The law, imposed by Beijing passed last June, has been invoked to detain 100 people and charge 57 — the majority for subversion for having organised or participated in an unofficial primary poll. Pro-Beijing voices have also invoked the law in attempts to bring the city’s arts, media and education sector to heel.

“Hong Kong was part of the free world. And the free world lost a city to its enemy,” Wu’er Kaixi, who was a student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, told HKFP.

Wu’er, who is exiled in Taiwan, said Hong Kong has become the first casualty in a “confrontation of values” on a global level. “I am afraid that the world is not seeing that. They see what happened at the scale of the United Kingdom versus the People’s Republic of China.”

Wu'er Kaixi
Photo: Wu’er Kaixi via Facebook.

The former British colony was promised a high degree of autonomy and a gradual implementation of democracy in the run-up to the 1997 Handover to China. But 23 years on, rights groups warn the democratic values once promised are eroding. “From a political science perspective, the free world lost a city. This confrontation is going to last. It has just begun,” he said.

‘New frontier’

The exiled dissident, who now campaigns for human rights and democracy in China abroad, said the loss of Hong Kong and an increasingly assertive China on the world stage signals the rise of a new cold war.

“With Tiananmen, you’d think the cold war had ended,” Wu’er told HKFP. “But then the world adopted a very wrong China policy which has led us today to the new frontier of the old cold war.

“The world has adopted a very, very wrong Beijing approach ever since the beginning of the 1970’s,” he said. The dissident referred to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who initiated rapprochement with China which eventually led to official diplomatic ties between the US and the People’s Republic of China in 1979.

Henry Kissinger
former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Photo: University of Michigan, via Flickr.

For Wu’er, Kissinger’s approach to China enabled an increasingly belligerent Beijing: “Henry Kissinger is someone I point my finger to very strongly,” he said. “Kissinger has orchestrated this China policy that has helped the Chinese Communist Party become what it is today.”

“The sacrifice of Uyghur people and the resilience of Hong Kong people paved the way for this… We are looking forward to a new combat. This new cold war is going to be between China and a ‘came-to-its-senses’ United States.”

Wu’er Kaixi

The world had only realised the threat of China in the last few years, he said. “That policy continued for 30 years until 2019. What happened in 2019 is Hong Kong. That shocked the world. The whole world was like ‘there’s something wrong with our China policy’,” he said.

Since Beijing’s imposition of the national security law, the US has sanctioned dozens of Chinese and Hong Kong officials it holds responsible for the erosion of human rights in the region. Diplomatic tensions are similarly rising between Beijing and London, Ottawa, Canberra and Brussels, which have all voiced concerns over human rights abuses under the Communist Party.

Wu'er Kaixi
Photo: Wu’er Kaixi via Facebook.

Reports of mass internment, forced labour and forced abortions of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region has prompted international outcry, with the US, Canadian and UK parliaments in recent months labelling Beijing’s actions as “genocide.” Beijing has maintained that its “vocational training centres” are necessary to prevent terrorism and to provide employment.

“The United Nations structure for world order has failed. It’s a failed international system… It did not prevent regional war. It did not prevent genocide, it failed to protect the global interest.”

Wu’er Kaixi

Wu’er – whose parents are both Uyghurs who moved to Beijing in the 1950s but have since returned to Urumqi – said that mounting international criticism of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang signalled a shift in international attitudes towards China: “The world is changing when it comes to China… From 2017, they started to put Uyghur people in internment camps and the world found it inconvenient to believe… because in the last three decades they’ve fallen into an economic relationship with China that [is] difficult to withdraw from.

“At the beginning, the Western world did not want to deal with Uyghur issues… But then the Hong Kong demonstrations happened. The Hong Kong demonstrations took place in front of the whole world. Because, unlike China, there is a certain degree of free press in Hong Kong, it was broadcast to the world,” he said.

“We can say ‘look what happened in Hong Kong.’ What happened in Xinjiang, they’re totally capable of doing this’,” added the exiled dissident.

‘Very good direction’

Having realised the threat China poses to democratic values, Wu’er said the free world must now implement a new world order: “The United Nations structure for world order has failed. It’s a failed international system,” he said. “It did not prevent regional war. It did not prevent genocide, it failed to protect the global interest.”

He added that new US President Joe Biden’s emphasis on rekindling relationships with democratic allies after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from international treaties is a welcomed strategy against China.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden. Photo: The White House/Adam Schultz, via Flickr.

“Biden is saying we need to form an alliance of democracies… an alliance of democracies is very concrete,” he said, referring to Biden’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga earlier this month and the upcoming meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in May.

“Biden is continuing Donald Trump’s anti-China policy, with allies… So, yes, things are changing for sure towards a very good direction.

“The sacrifice of Uyghur people and the resilience of Hong Kong people paved the way for this… We are looking forward to a new combat. This new cold war is going to be between China and a ‘came-to-its-senses’ United States,” he said.

‘Hold the flag of democracy’

Since 2009, Wu’er has tried repeatedly to return to China to see his ailing parents, to no avail. Despite having spent more than half his life in exile, he told HKFP he still believed he will be able to return “in due course”.

“But you really have to see this in the global perspective. If you are Xinjiang today, you’ll feel doomed being Uyghur. But there is hope,” he added.

“I’m an exiled Chinese dissident. For the last 30 years, we have been fighting for democracy in China. 30 years. And the world stood in line to go to Beijing to kowtow to Beijing. Of course, we would feel full of despair.

47 democrats court protest (1)
Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“But this despair-filled exiled Chinese dissident is telling Hong Kong people now, there is hope. The hope is that the world will come to its senses,” he said. “The world is facing an easy decision: do we want to live free or not? Do we want eventually everybody to become citizens of the people’s republic of the world under the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party totalitarian rule?”

“That’s the dumbest question, but very much presented to the seven billion people in the world today. I think the world in the past avoided this question, but now we have to answer… By the nature of the stupidity of the question, I think the answer is going to be ‘no’ to China,” Wu’er said.

He called on Hongkongers not to give up: “Hold the flag of democracy as high as you can, as firm as you can. This person did, in the past 30 years. I have faith. I have seen what Hong Kong people did in the last two years. I shed a lot of tears, and I have a lot of friends who share my feeling… which is faith in Hong Kong people.”

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.