Here’s some food for thought as we approach the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, looking for better ways to remember and commemorate the tragedy.
Let me first devote some paragraphs to China’s history in the last century.
The Chinese Communist Party took over the mainland in 1949, but technically the nation’s civil war hadn’t ended by then. The battle, in effect, lasted throughout the following three decades.
A peak in the prolonged engagement in armed hostilities between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek was the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis triggered by the August shelling of Kinmen, a chain of Taiwan islets that are less than two kilometers away from China’s Fujian province.
The United States’ military involvement blocked China’s recapture of Kinmen, and ever since the battle was turned into a ritual: the two sides would shell each other’s lands on odd days and cease fire on even days.
What was the point of sustaining such a “battle”? Its political symbolism was far greater than the military outcome: as long as the belligerent sides had no intention to make peace, at least on the surface, China would still be in a state of civil war and thus the two sides still belonged to one China, a tacit rapport that both Mao and Chiang strived to maintain.
Back then Western powers were ready to acknowledge two Chinas – one led by Mao and the other by Chiang – and it was said that Chiang sent a secret envoy to Beijing and advised Mao against any escalation of the battle after he was urged by the West to give up Kinmen.
Mao knew well that if these barren islets were given up, then China would be officially divided by the Taiwan Strait into two. The logic was that the civil war would hold China together and thus an endgame must be avoided. That was how the dilatory tactics were adopted by both parties.
The “battle” didn’t end until 1979 when Washington established diplomatic ties with Beijing after indicating its non-objection to Beijing’s insistence of suzerainty over Taiwan.
In May 1991, then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui abolished the 43-year-old temporary constitutional provisions, which were introduced by Kuomintang to suppress communist rebellion.
The hidden line of Lee’s move was that the Taipei government no longer considered the island a part of China. Beijing was very much bothered and had never restored reconciliation with Lee ever since.
These facts tell us that Beijing won’t be troubled by your objection – even in the form of military conflict, but if you drop your national recognition and seek a thorough departure, you may just have hit Beijing’s cardinal concern — sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The truth is also applicable to Hong Kong’s status quo.
When the striking divergence is already there and secessionists and nationalists charter separate paths in pursuit of democracy, the implication of the annual June 4 candlelight vigil amid the all the changes is now clear: it is the last and ultimate manifestation of Hongkongers’ national bond and identity.
If Hong Kong people now choose to let go of the tragedy, believing that June 4 no longer has anything to do with them, then it means that they have ultimately detached themselves from China.
From the initial antipathy to great “tolerance” in recent years, it took Beijing some time to realize the fact that the Hongkongers who mourn the Tiananmen tragedy can actually be patriots who still regard themselves as Chinese.
Beijing believes that Hongkongers’ upholding of national identity and their request for vindication amount to the recognition of its legitimacy to rule.
So, here is the irony: Beijing will become more worried than the vigil organizers if the number of attendees wanes, as it will point to greater estrangement and a situation where fewer Hongkongers think they are Chinese.
The purpose, theme and discourse of the commemorative activity depend on the state of cross-border relations, requiring vigil organizers to adjust to public sentiments.
Specifically, these adjustments need to focus on a few aspects. The first is slogans and demands.
The youngsters may resist words like “vindication” or “democracy for China”, but their common demand should be revised to bringing those responsible for the atrocities to justice – in a form like the Nuremberg Trials.
Young activists who have been tear-gassed and gone through all intimidation during last year’s Occupy movement realize that at crucial junctures the Chinese People’s Liberation Hong Kong Garrison may be ready to repeat what their force has done in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Thus, revealing PLA’s true nature should become a focal point of future vigils.
There have also been controversies over the location of the vigil, with some activists advocating a more extensive approach to organize activities in more locations across the territory.
Since the effect of the vigil is becoming less obvious as it’s been seen like preaching to the choir, I suggest that perhaps we can move the event directly to places outside the PLA barracks.
Who in today’s China knows the least about the PLA’s abject atrocity? Who have been most deeply deluded regarding the role of the force in 1989?
The answer is the PLA soldiers themselves. And among them, those stationing in Hong Kong must have been thoroughly brainwashed before they were sent to the territory known for its free flow of information.
Therefore if these PLA soldiers in Hong Kong can have access to the truth, their awakening may come fast and well. This can be the best that the vigil can deliver.
Lay down your cleaver to become a Buddhist (放下屠刀立地成佛) is a Chinese idiom about salvation. Who can say that there is no single person in the PLA that can attain salvation through repentance?
By the same token the offices of the chief executive and other Beijing stooges can also be ideal venues.
But shifting the vigil to these locations may entail greater risks. It is important that organizers and participants refrain from resorting to violence.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 28.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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