When Chinese pro-democracy activist and Tiananmen Square veteran Li Wangyang was found dead under suspicious circumstances earlier this month, it was the people of Hong Kong who led the calls for an independent investigation. Just this week, after thousands staged protests in Hong Kong, Chinese officials agreed to launch an inquiry into Li’s death. Hong Kong’s citizens, who are governed as a special administrative region of China with more freedoms of speech and press, have seemingly taken up remembering past struggles for reform as a duty its people must perform on behalf of all those who are unable do the same on the mainland.
Once again, this past June 4, Hong Kong held its annual candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of the incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Every year since 1990, thousands have gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to remember those who died, as well as to call on the Chinese government to apologize for its decision to send in the army against the student protesters. This year, a cool, clear evening coincided with a particularly tense political atmosphere — Hong Kong’s incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, thought by many to be a Beijing loyalist, refused to publicly comment on the commemoration — attracting a record turnout of 180,000 people.
Though every year a smattering of similar memorials take place in China, they are often voluntarily muted or go unreported due to government restrictions and fear of reprisals. In fact, June 4 dissidents and activists who haven’t left to go overseas are generally closely monitored, with some still suffering varying levels of imprisonment even decades after the fact.
Hong Kong’s special sense of responsibility to remember dominated the night of the vigil. One especially moving portion of the ceremony came from activist Fang Zheng, who was once a budding track star until losing his legs after a tank ran him over on June 4, only to become a national champion in javelin and discus. He proudly asserted during his speech, “Your participation shows that you have not forgotten the movement 23 years ago.” In another segment, organizers read off the names of the dead. Here, the crowd’s duty was invoked once more, as we were called upon to collectively remember each family’s trauma.
Not forgetting is seemingly 90 percent of the battle for democracy activists in China. Though sitting in a park chanting slogans and singing songs for 90 minutes may seem like a rather sedate form of protest (just ask Bill Maher), especially when compared to the more ardent types of resistance that their forebearers participated in, the Hong Kong memorial is defiant in its own way. With one-party rule firmly ensconced in China, conventional political activism like voting and election organizing simply aren’t options. And while China is willing to accept certain levels of protest, especially if limited to cases of local mismanagement or corruption, any calls for national political change are generally swiftly and ruthlessly shut down.
As easy as it is to dismiss Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s seemingly toothless calls for political reform, however, they do indicate that top leaders have thought about what a post-one-party China would look like. As such, while the opportunity to take effective action does not exist now, an opening may appear in a decade or two. If so, that will be when the work of Hong Kong’s vigils, the organization of “non-protests” like arranged walks and calls to dress in black, the efforts of Wang Dan and other activists, and the Weibo messages of netizens will bear fruit.
Otherwise, if such acts of remembering aren’t performed, the Chinese government is betting that time will heal all wounds — or at least cause citizens to forget that real resistance ever happened. Already, as a Frontline documentary from a few years ago reported, when shown images of the iconic Tank Man, college students at Beijing University couldn’t recognize the scene (or did a superb acting job pretending not to know). As troubling as it is to think that the government may someday be able to successfully ignore its past wrongs, it is equally inspiring to watch the 22-year-old Samuel Li Shing-hong, a democracy activist who wasn’t even born at the time of the June 4 incident, speak so forthrightly about what “6-4,” as the anniversary is called, meant to him.
毋忘六四！(Cantonese: Mou mong Luk-Sei! / Mandarin: Wu wang Liu-Si! / English: Never forget 6-4!)
薪火相传！ (Sanfo soeng chuan! / Xinhuo xiangchuan! / Pass on the torch!)
平反八九民运！ (Pingfaan Baat-Gau manwan! / Pingfan Ba-Jiu minyun! / Pardon the ’89 movement!)
承继英烈精神！ (Singgai jinglit zingsan! / Chengji yinglie jingshen! / Inherit the martyr’s spirit!)
结束一党专政！ (Gitcuk jatdongzyunzing! / Jieshu yidangzhuanzheng! / End one-party dictatorship!)
建设民主中国！ (Gincit manzyu Zunggwok! / Jianshe minzhu Zhongguo! / Let’s build a democratic China!)
坚持到底！ (Ginci doudai! / Jianchi daodi! / Keep struggling to the end!)
战斗到底！ (Zindau doudai! / Zhandou daodi! / Fight to the end!)
Even though the annual Hong Kong vigil at times can come across more as festival than a place for serious political action, the mere fact that people have gathered together to speak out is important. The familiar songs, video montages, speeches and chants still maintain the power to move, and people in Hong Kong have wisely taken advantage of the freedoms that are still allowed to them.
While some will focus on the lack of action coming from the June 4 vigil and others will deride the upcoming annual July 1 pro-democracy marches as muddled in message, perhaps we should acknowledge the seemingly restrained response by Hong Kong citizens as both heartfelt and tactically sound in light of the options available. As in the case of Li Wangyang, China needs Hong Kong more than ever if it ever is to seek a more open and transparent society.
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