Tiananmen Anniversary

On the 4th of June every year since 1989, Hong Kong holds the largest annual Tiananmen Square protests on the globe; tens of thousands of democracy protestors, as well as people who just want to remember what happened, fill up Victoria Park in the central suburb of Causeway Bay. The event has never really attracted attention outside of Hong Kong and certainly not in China where even referencing the anniversary is a dangerous taboo.

Regardless, every year, depending on the state of affairs in China, protesters ranging from the tens to hundreds of thousands camp on the grass for a solemn, respectful and passionate display of remembrance. Chants are exchanged, songs sung, speeches from real and escaped martyrs alike are read and most importantly promises are made; that the people of Hong Kong will resolutely stop anything similar to Tiananmen from ever happening in their city.

When I arrived at Victoria Park, late after work on the 4th of this month I had never seen anything like the side of Hong Kong that I saw that night. Many of the protests I had seen previously looked like a parade of the small and disenfranchised; there seemed more police than protestors in attendance. What looked like little more than a few bus-loads of wizened old aunts and uncles carried coloured placards and banged drums as they marched past the lines of disinterested policemen holding back the traffic. The Hong Kong democracy movement seemed in sad and disheartening shape, and I believe that many of the tourists who saw the march that day believed it was for a small religious sect, celebrating a holy day.

But that night, as I descended the escalator from my work, not more than three blocks away, I knew that tonight was different and that I was wrong. The democracy movement in Hong Kong is no small sect and it is obviously July 4th that is their holy day. The streets leading up to the park were more congested than anything I’ve seen in my life, and then my companion and I got to the park itself.

This year was the largest commemoration since 1989, over 180,000 people, not just the people who had lived through Tiananmen, but passionate teenagers too attended. It was not just for Hong Kong natives but also Western, Taiwanese and Chinese people. In the space of time it took us to climb a commanding power box to sit with the photographers, all my misconceptions about Hong Kong people having no social heart, nor any political aspirations, were gone. And as the chants grew louder, the camera flashes flared at once and 80,000 candles rose in union I had the feeling that the entire expanse of what I was seeing was sincere, and right and good and that it dwarfed any admiration I’d had for anything I’d seen in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Outside the sincerity of Victoria Park the cynicism, censorship and cronyism that I’d previously come to attribute to Hong Kong was working hard to dispel the message of the July 4th however. As has come to be expected the police force’s official count for the protest was at least half that of those who turned up, secondly Hong Kong’s pro-Bejing, crony-bound government continued their ‘seen but not heard’ stance when it comes to democracy in Hong Kong. The CEO had no comment regarding the commemoration, nor regarding the claims made therein; that Hong Kong was becoming less democratic and more stifling a place to live, as Beijing has slowly pushed for greater social prevalence in the city.

This years Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park Hong Kong

At the same time blatant blocks on the Weibo accounts of pro democracy dissidents in China, coupled with attacks on the facebook accounts of many Hong Kong-based democracy protestors, effectively silenced some of the movement’s online voice in the lead up to the event. But that was nothing compared to what was to come. Three days after the protests, just after he had criticized the CPC in his first ever interview, the highly suspicious “accidental death” of Li Wanyang; the longest serving Tiananmen Square inmate did even more damage to Hong Kong- mainland relations.

The new mainland born Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post and high ranking Communist Party member; Wang Xiangwei only served to exacerbate the problem after being accused of the purposeful underwriting of the event to limit the damage to Beijing. Making things worse, a sub-editor’s questioning on the issue resulted in this leaked tirade; “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.” Two weeks later, after his reply hit the headlines of other publications world-wide, the South China Morning Post ran the issue in full and Mr Wang, shamed by the attention, attempted to talk the rhetoric down from ‘self censorship’ to ‘de-sensationalising’ a story until all the facts were known.

Considering all of this; that their government doesn’t care about their freedoms, that activists are still being threatened, censored and possibly killed and that their own media is being castrated by Beijing, the Li Wanyang issue is the next focal point for visceral levels of discontent in Hong Kong. Originally deemed a ‘suicide’, the angry and unprecedentedly large response to his death by pro- democracy activists in China and specifically in Hong Kong caused a huge CPC back-down and the promise of a criminal investigation. It also bodes well for the July 1st, Hong Kong handover anniversary protests, and you know that I’ll be there for that too.


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