Another anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown has come and gone. This year – like last year – the authorities mobilised thousands of police officers to ensure that no organised event took place. Officials closed Victoria Park and ramped up stop and searches, threatening anyone who looked “suspicious” with possible national security law violations, such as “sedition.” Intimidation.

Victoria Park is empty as commemorative activities to mark the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 are muted across Hong Kong, on June 4, 2022. Photo: HKFP.

Thus it was that the authorities in Hong Kong stuck their stick in an open wound and swirled it around. What special insight do Hong Kong authorities have beyond the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign against historical nihilism? Nothing, I suggest.

If they examine the record of what happened in May-June 1989 in Beijing and many other cities in mainland China, they will understand that demonstrators demanding democracy had the support of the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party.

Activist Lau Shan-ching wears a face mask with “Never forget June 4” in Chinese characters on at Victoria Park, in Causeway Bay, on June 4, 2022. He was later arrested. Photo: HKFP.

Scores of party affiliated organisations actively participated and supported the demonstrators. It makes no sense to argue that these senior party leaders sought to overthrow themselves. They sought reform and they sought accountability.

There has been no credible official investigation of what happened in Beijing on June 3-4, 1989, that is open to the public. This indicates the extent to which the political accountability system on the mainland has failed to deliver. Rather we had the ominous words of party spokesmen Yuan Mu, who later declared that nothing happened here. 

Police cordon off an area in Causeway Bay on the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, on June 4, 2022. Photo: HKFP.

The actions of the Hong Kong police on Sunday were all the more outrageous because we, taxpayers, are paying for this without our consent. If commemorating the crackdown on protesters that occurred in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and resulted in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths is seditious, prove it. The party is attributing to each and everyone who sought such a commemoration a seditious intent. So, I say again, prove it. 

China’s Communist Party has struggled with this open wound since 1989, unable to seal it and unable to come to terms with it. This indicates a lack of adaptive capacity, a quality the party has demonstrated in other domains. A nasty blind spot. The party’s brittle self-confidence and insecurity is there for all to see. 

Now Hong Kong authorities are continuing in their grand tradition of debased accountability that has characterised the past decades here. Our leaders scream that the Basic Law guarantees freedom of association, assembly, procession, and demonstration. Sorry to disappoint you Carrie Lam, John Lee, and Teresa Cheng, but the Basic Law does no such thing. These paper rights are only as good as what happens on the streets, such as on June 4, 2022, and what happens in the courts. 

For years, Hong Kong’s Tiananmen crackdown commemorations attracted hundreds of thousands of people, parents bringing their children and teaching them about responsible government, accountability, and participation. To my regret I never attended a June 4 commemoration in HK, but now that the authorities have banned them, the activity has become even more attractive.

A Hongkonger shines the light on her mobile phone in Causeway Bay on the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, on June 4, 2022. Photo: HKFP.

We now face the prospect of authorities clamping down on society even harder: an expanded Article 23 to bring in new national security crimes, a cybersecurity law to censor the internet, and a fake news law to further intimidate the media. The government’s fragile self-confidence is available for all to see. 

Our authorities like to characterise the people of Hong Kong as stooges of foreign powers, unable to understand their own interests, or to see what they have lost. Our government denies agency to the people of Hong Kong. Like the trustees of the past, our government tells us that it knows best, the language of authoritarian paternalism. 


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John Burns

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.