In Hong Kong, Tiananmen Square memories fade

Protests are allowed here, but yesterday the number of people observing the 12th anniversary dwindled.

Club 64's inconspicuous black-and-white neon sign never dims. Never, that is, except for one day a year: June 4.

Not that Grace Ma, who co-owns this storefront bar, would expect tourists in this part of Hong Kong to know what that means.

"Of course, I don't blame them," Ms. Ma says of those whose bulging wallets provide her livelihood. "Only the regulars know. But still, on this day I cannot stand to have them here. So on this day I close."

Opened in 1991, Club 64 stands as Ma's way of thumbing her nose at the Beijing regime, which sent troops and tanks to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations that filled Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The number killed in what is called in China the "6/4 incident" and the suppression of a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" is unknown, although most estimates begin at 2,000.

In Beijing yesterday, police guarded the main streets leading to Tiananmen Square and carefully watched the area to prevent public protest. And although the incident is still commemorated in Hong Kong in a few semi-tolerated demonstrations, including a yearly candlelight vigil in Victoria Park that was expected to draw as many as 30,000 attendees, interest is dwindling.

A student-organized march from Hong Kong Baptist University to the Beijing Interests Section on Sunday drew a paltry 20 participants. The only Tiananmen-related headline in the local English paper Monday spoke of the dilapidated state of a statue on the Hong Kong University campus that was dedicated to memory of Tiananmen.

"I can see interest is waning," says Martin Lee, chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. "Many young people today are too young to remember the events of 1989, and unfortunately I don't see too many of them attending our functions."

Activists blame a combination of pressure from the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hua, and a local ethos that ranks politics well below the need to earn a living.

For all the apathy, memories of Tiananmen do linger. On Sunday, a band of performance artists astonished pedestrians in beautiful downtown Chater Garden by unfurling a large oil painting depicting the Imperial Palace in Tiananmen morphing into a tank. Yesterday a band of Hong Kong University students took part in the ritual repainting of the slogan "Never Forget" in large Chinese characters on a bridge within the august HKU campus. Over the years, campus authorities have repeatedly painted over the graffiti, only to have the students repaint it the next day.

Perhaps the most striking permanent commemoration of Tiananmen in Hong Kong takes the form of a statue that dominates the square in front of the HKU student union. This statue, dubbed the "Pillar of Shame," portrays an amalgam of groaning and weeping faces emerging from a muddy background. Sculpted and donated by Danish artist Jens Galschiotm, it stood for years in a central location in Victoria Park until police tried to dismantle it overnight in the aftermath of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. They were thwarted by a band of students, who rescued the statue and brought it onto campus, where they have guarded it jealously since. Yesterday it was the scene of a student political seminar and teach-in.

But if memories are fading, it is not without the approval of the government. Beijing appointee Mr. Tung has never made a secret of his distaste for the democratic activist camp, and over the past year there have been more incidents in which his government's pro-Beijing leanings have become clear. Most recently, the Tung administration moved to study the banning of "evil cults" in what analysts call an obvious threat to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which until recently has practiced openly in Hong Kong.

Mr. Lee, for years the most outspoken proponent of democracy here, and as such the chief nemesis of the pro-Beijing factions that dominate the government, is not allowed to cross the border to the north. "In this day and age, I can travel to any country in the world - even to Russia. But I cannot travel within my own country. I think that is very sad, and I think it speaks to the state of nervousness within the Beijing regime."

Politically active young people in Hong Kong have not escaped the increasing pressure. Twenty-year-old Gloria Chang has been arrested twice this year, both times for participating in protests without a police permit. And just last week, two students, Christopher Fung and Walker Fung (no relation) were arrested for taking part in a protest against genetically engineered food.

"I think it is sad when they arrest someone," says Grace Ma, standing behind the bar in Club 64 amid Amnesty International posters and protest poems that dot the walls. "Some people may say those students were stupid, that they should just be concentrating on making a living. But every arrest sparks conversation and debate, and every arrest makes people question the world around them and the government."

At Club 64, Frances Huang doesn't profess to know much about the Tiananmen incident and says she has little interest in learning more. "I think it is overwhelming for someone like me," says the young university-educated woman. "It is such a big issue that I don't know the answers. Maybe in 50 years, people will understand better. But I think it is all too close right now. So I just concentrate on my business life."

When Ms. Huang speaks of the historical perspective, she has a point. China historically has had a fear of instability. While America was losing 600,000 people killed on both sides of its own Civil War in the mid-19th century, China lost 20 million, or some two-thirds of the entire population of the United States at the time. The Taiping Rebellion was sparked by protests over corruption and graft, which were two of the major complaints lodged by the students at Tiananmen 12 years ago.

"Tell me again how many were killed in Tiananmen?" Huang asks. "I forgot."

Still, Grace Ma thinks she has an answer. "Too many,"she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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