Is Tiananmen still relevant? Why Hong Kong’s generations disagree

This June 4, the 'Umbrella' generation of Hong Kongers grapple with what the Tiananmen Square protest means to them.

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Tens of thousands attended the candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park commemorating the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing.

Hong Kong’s annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests has experienced a schism. Some students and activists have split from the main event, holding alternate vigils and forums in order to underline a stance that Hong Kong should focus on its own autonomy.

Hong Kong’s candlelit vigil is held in memory of a violent crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, in which the Chinese military suppressed pro-democracy protests led by students. While the event is not remarked on in mainland China, in Hong Kong, the anniversary has become an important tradition attended by tens of thousands in the city, which became a special administrative region of mainland China in 1997 after decades of British control.

But things began to change two years ago, after Hong Kong took a stand against Beijing with the "Umbrella" protests, where thousands of Hong Kongers camped out in the city’s financial district, protesting Beijing influence over the Hong Kong elections. As with the Tiananmen protests, students took a leading role as the voices and organizers of that four-month long protest.  

The fact that Hong Kong students and activists are stepping back from this year's traditional Tiananmen vigil, held in Victoria Park, marks a shift in thought: while many, largely of the older generations, find it crucial to continue to raise awareness about mainland China’s lack of democracy, young Hong Kongers feel that the focus should be on their own city’s independence. It’s a distinction that mirrors the difference between the two historic protests – one about mainland China’s democracy another about Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“The reason younger people are avoiding Victoria Park in the past few years is they felt the older democrats have failed to represent them,” Joshua Wong, one of the leading voices of the "Umbrella" movement told The New York Times. “Just a few years ago, the Alliance was singing songs like ‘The Chinese Dream,’ and even the ‘Descendants of the Dragon.’ It was the older generation’s nationalist sentiment with China. Our generation grew up witnessing how the Chinese Communist Party has come to appropriate the Chinese identity for itself, so we’re not associating ourselves with that.”

Paul Liu Chun-sing, one of the leaders of Hong Kong Federation of Students, a group not attending the Victoria Park vigil, told the South China Morning Post: “I was asked to be responsible for something that the Chinese [living on the mainland] do not even fight for. Is such responsibility innate?” 

To Liu, and a growing number of others from his generation born after 1989, China is just a neighboring country. To them, therefore, the June 4 crackdown is no different from other tragedies  around the world, the Post writes.

“The most important aim is to tell people there the importance of pursuing self-determination for Hong Kong,” said Wong, who reportedly does support the traditional vigil, in the New York Times interview. “June 4 launched Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The Umbrella Movement launched the next wave.”

It was with this spirit that the University of Hong Kong’s student union held its own vigil, “to reflect on the future of democracy in Hong Kong.” This event, held at the same time as the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, was attended by some 2,000 people according to eyewitness reports on Twitter.

However, the main event - which drew an estimated 125,000 - was not without mention of the "Umbrella" movement. Leaders of the annual June 4 vigil, a group called Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, have folded the "Umbrella" protest into their commemoration, incorporating a yellow umbrella into the logo and speaking about that movement as well as the protest in 1989.

“Our strategy is to link the two things, so people can see that democracy in Hong Kong and in China are part of the same resistance. Their opponent is the same,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, former chairman of the Alliance. “The two fights are the same fight.”

Meanwhile in Beijing, June 4 passed quietly as the government keeps tight control over mention of the events, to the extent that some Chinese youth are not aware of the significance of the date, in sharp contrast to those who experienced Hong Kong’s June 4, either at Victoria Park, or since the "Umbrella" movement, at the University of Hong Kong campus, or events elsewhere the city.

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