SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
BY ROWENA HE
As thousands of Hong Kong students calling for democracy faced off a huge police presence orchestrated from Beijing on Sunday evening, I anxiously followed events from my home in Massachusetts. My thoughts flew back to the night of 3 June, 1989, when more than 200,000 army soldiers were deployed against unarmed civilians in China’s capital city.
In the spring of 1989, Chinese students spearheaded a nationwide movement for democracy, challenging the authoritarian communist government in Beijing. Now, 25 years later, idealistic students are back on the streets. They are demanding that China’s leaders honour their promise to allow the citizens of Hong Kong to vote for the city’s chief executive in a genuinely free election rather than one rigged from Beijing.
It is difficult not to be reminded of Tiananmen. The young faces of the students, the passionate speech by a young singer who said that “Hong Kong people deserve the best”, the support from teachers and ordinary citizens from all walks of life, their anger at the government’s refusal to engage them in meaningful dialogue, the debates over whether to stay or leave, the uncertainty about crackdown and punishment, even the signs telling protesters where to recycle their water bottles and soft drink cans: all remind us of the orderly character and non-violent nature of the Tiananmen Movement. And most importantly, the Hong Kong students are dealing with the same regime, led by a new generation of autocrats, that has survived after a massacre against its own people 25 years ago.
But students in Hong Kong’s Civic Square are different from the students in Tiananmen Square. The students of the Tiananmen generation, including myself, trusted the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to reform itself. Our idea of a crackdown was the incident in 1976, when people who gathered in Tiananmen Square to express dissent were only taken away and beaten. Students in Hong Kong today harbour no such illusions. They know that Beijing will stop at nothing to repress any challenges to its rule. They know a crackdown can involve AK-47s, tanks and explosive bullets if tear gas and rubber bullets fail to break their will.
It is no exaggeration to say that Tiananmen was the watershed event that awakened political consciousness in Hong Kong. A million Hong Kong people, out of its population of six million, took to the streets to support the Chinese students’ struggle for democracy. For a quarter of a century, hundreds of thousands gathered each year on 4 June in Victoria Park in Hong Kong, making the city the only territory in China that lit candles for the Tiananmen victims. Parents, teachers and all who held Tiananmen in their memory made sure that the younger generation knew about this history. Because public opinion in relation to nationalism and democratisation is inseparable from a collective memory (whether it be truthful, selective or manipulated) of the nation’s most immediate past, the memory of Tiananmen is intimately related to the Hong Kong people’s struggle to stop their liberty and dignity from being taken away.
Hong Kong is the best example of the power of information. Because of its free press and free speech inherited from the period of British colonial rule, knowledge and information have been disseminated, creating a comparatively healthy civil society environment for young people. Students now in the streets of Hong Kong are informed citizens with a critical mind trying to contribute to positive social change, exactly what is advocated in citizenship education in liberal democratic societies. But this sort of freedom is now under siege, as is evident when television stations’ licenses are renewed selectively depending on their politics, and when editors of newspapers critical of the Beijing government are physically attacked by unknown gangsters.
Many of the students participating in the current civil disobedience received their political baptism in the 2011-2012 movement led by Joshua Wong, at the time a 15-year-old high school student, against the Moral National Education program, in which a teaching manual called the Communist Party an “advanced, selfless and united ruling group” while denouncing the Democratic and Republican Parties of the United States as a “fierce inter-party rivalry [that] makes the people suffer”.
In 1989, the Tiananmen movement was mainly led by students who called it a patriotic, pro-democracy movement. They thought they were following the Chinese tradition of Confucian dissent – to help the rulers to improve but not to overthrow. In other words, the Tiananmen Movement was never a real “revolution”; most students were not looking for a regime change – they were pushing for democratic political reform. While the students in 1989 knew little about previous democratic movements and atrocities inflicted by the communist regime, students in Hong Kong are well aware of how those loyal, patriotic students in 1989 were branded “counter-revolutionary rioters” and were imprisoned and exiled.
That is why students in Hong Kong never knelt down as students did in 1989 to submit their petitions to the leaders. Instead, when Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung tried to shake hands after accepting Wong’s petition, the young student didn’t shake hands with him. Instead, he bowed. The teenager later explained that he understood the need to show respect to the head of Hong Kong, but he didn’t want to indicate any cooperation.
It is difficult to predict what the regime will do this time. But we all know that the Chinese Communist Party has no red line it will not cross when it comes to hanging on to power. We know that such a challenge is not just for the people in Hong Kong, but for the world. In our global village, it is impossible to watch with folded arms.
When the world’s criteria for a great country are downgraded to solely revolve around GDP, and world citizens bow to a regime that enforces false values because of its wealth, it is encouraging to see these courageous young faces in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the best reminder of the Tiananmen spirit – repression, yes, but also the indomitable force of the human spirit. As the desire for freedom and our longing for basic rights is universal, history will witness the Tiananmen spirit, and now the Hong Kong spirit, as the power of the powerless, again and again.
Tiananmen Massacre Presentation