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Rifts in Remembrance: Hong Kong Students Turn Back on Tiananmen Anniversary Vigil

On 4 June 2016, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park was lit up with the flickering light of tens of thousands of candles as more than 100,000 people turned out to remember the 27th anniversary of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square military massacre.

The event commemorated the victims of China’s bloody suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, when troops and tanks were brought in to break up a peaceful seven-week student demonstration calling for political reform. While figures on the total number of civilian casualties range wildly, human rights groups and witnesses have estimated that as many as several hundred to several thousand died that night.

In China today, censorship around the Tiananmen anniversary remains strong. The ‘Great Firewall’ expunged online references to the massacre, and public discussion of the event is a taboo punishable by jail time. Ahead of this year’s anniversary, the Tiananmen Mothers Group released a statement recounting ‘27 years of white terror and suffocation’ for the families of the victims who faced additional restrictions and surveillance ahead of the anniversary.

As a special administrative region governed under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong has preserved a wide range of freedoms that are not extended to mainland China. As such, the annual Hong Kong commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre stands out as the only large-scale memorial tolerated on Chinese soil, and the largest public event in the world. Since 1989, the vigil has been organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China—known as the Alliance—whose aims include building a democratic China, ending the one-party political system and demanding accountability for the 4 June massacre.

However, this year’s anniversary faced controversy, as longstanding supporters of the event turned their backs on the event. For the first time, the Federation of Students—an umbrella group of student unions—chose to abstain from attending the annual Victoria Park vigil. Instead, many student leaders held rival gatherings on university campuses, where they met at academic forums to discuss the future of Hong Kong’s democratic movement.

Other activists expressed their disapproval more noisily. Ahead of the anniversary, the editorial board of She Yan University’s student newspaper decried the Alliance as ‘pimps and bawds in a brothel after they themselves were raped’, as way of condemning the organisation’s focus on the politics of China. Disturbances were also felt at Victoria Park itself, as a handful of pro-independence demonstrators wearing masks briefly tried to storm the stage before being ushered off by organisers and police.

The rejection of the Tiananmen anniversary vigil by some student groups underscores a widening rift between younger and older generations of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and is emblematic of a ‘deepening of the line in the sand’ between the two camps. The main sticking point for these student groups is that they no longer believe that one of the Alliance’s main aims—fighting for democracy in mainland China—is a realistic goal for the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Fissures in Hong Kong’s democracy movement became apparent during the Umbrella Movement of 2014 through the emergence of so-called ‘localist’ groups. These groups argue that Hong Kong should aim for autonomy from China rather than democracy on the mainland, with some hardline members even advocating for the city’s complete independence from China.

This is an issue of Hong Kong’s identity as much as its politics, with many viewing the city as culturally and linguistically distinct from the mainland. However, it’s a perspective that the Chairman of the Alliance warns against, arguing: ‘The strong stance of rejection against China advocated by these young people may have the undesirable consequence of splitting the mainstream movement in Hong Kong for democracy, because we all know it is politically unrealistic for us to ignore China as a whole’.

With elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council coming up in September, the full effect of these divisions are yet to be seen. However, the recent upsurge of new student-led localist parties vying for seats in the election has led some to worry that this may serve to split votes in the democratic movement, and ultimately play into the hands of pro-Beijing political parties. While the Victoria Park vigil has traditionally galvanised Hong Kong’s democracy movement, this year its ranks appeared more divided than ever.

Nicole Tooby holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies (Hons.) from the University of Sydney and works at Human Rights Watch.

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Image credit: Wan Fung Law (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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