19 February 2019
A file photo shows a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park to remember those killed in a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989. Photo: Bloomberg
A file photo shows a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park to remember those killed in a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989. Photo: Bloomberg

Why some youth are becoming indifferent to June 4

The candlelight vigil that takes place at Victoria Park on June 4 has come in for criticism that it is nothing more than an empty annual ritual.

This year some youth groups have said that they will boycott the event.

Elders are saddened by the news, wondering why the issue of condemning the Communist Party’s atrocities in Tiananmen Square in 1989 appears to have lost resonance among the younger generation.

The chairman of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union has dismissed the vigil, saying that it doesn’t serve any purpose and that it should be wrapped up for good.

Two or three years ago, no one could have envisaged that such a thing would happen.

But now we are stuck in a generational dichotomy on the issue.

The elders cherish their decades-long attachment to the annual remembrance of the victims of China’s crackdown on democracy activists, while millennials have started questioning the relevance of the vigil on an event that didn’t take place here in Hong Kong.

Now, I’d like to propose a couple of questions to the old and young who are seemingly divided.

Why did Hongkongers, known for their political apathy, feel so bereft and indignant when the Tiananmen massacre took place 27 years ago?

What was the reason for the outrage even though the overall estimated casualty figure in the 1989 crackdown was “paltry” in comparison to the death toll during other political calamities authored by the party after the People’s Republic was established in 1949?

The Three Years of Great Chinese Famine from 1959–1961, also known as “Mao’s famine”, claimed the most lives in the history of Communist China.

Over 870,000 “counterrevolutionaries” were sentenced to death during a purge from 1949 to 1952, while around 60,000 — mostly intellectuals — died in harsh ideological reeducation labor camps in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement.

To top it all, up to 1.5 million people are estimated to have lost their lives between 1966 and 1971 during the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Disputes remain over the exact casualties of the 1989 crackdown, with estimates ranging anywhere from 400 to 3,000.

Given the other calamities under Communist China, some felt that Tiananmen was a “small” incident.

Still, what prompted about one-and-a-half-million people in Hong Kong, in the then British colony, to take to the streets that summer in solidarity with protesters and martyrs north of the border?

The fact is that Hongkongers back then felt they can’t be mere onlookers to the tragedy — which saw young protesters, peaceful and unarmed, massacred by soldiers in Beijing – as Hong Kong’s own fate was becoming inextricably linked to the mainland due to the looming 1997 handover.

Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) inked a Joint Declaration in December 1984 after London agreed to give up Hong Kong, and the second draft of the Basic Law was promulgated four months before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Before the 1980s, Honkongers were nonchalant about political tumults ravaging China as a British Hong Kong provided a safe harbor.

But as the safe harbor was nearing an end, it made Hongkongers jittery. And the events at Tiananmen Square only added to peoples’ insecurity.

Taking to the streets was a natural reaction. 

Some Hongkongers genuinely hoped that their protests might help infuse democracy in the mainland, but most people were driven by fears about their very own future.

So, what has changed now and why are our youngsters becoming aloof?

Well, we can say that just like what may happen when a romance turns sour, one may have feelings of hate initially but the mood then gives way to detachment and indifference.

The seemingly “indifferent” youngsters, as I see it, abhor the Chinese Communist Party as much as oldline democrats and those participating in the June 4 vigil, if not already more.

But there is a sense of indifference creeping now as the youth focus more on issues closer home.

Now, we come to this question: which should worry Beijing more — the old democrats in Hong Kong who want a democratic China or the young lads in the city who now seem to think that events pertaining to the mainland are of no relevance to Hong Kong?

As the actions of the youth point to lack of national identity, and given the comments by some groups that they envision self-determination, or even independence, for Hong Kong, Beijing is faced with an uncomfortable reality.

As time goes by, I expect Hongkongers to care more about themselves than the issue of democracy in China.

Such sentiment is in tune with the rising nativism here.

The older people may believe that Hong Kong should continue its efforts to champion democracy in China, with the June 4 vigil seen as an important pressure tactic.

But the young — many of whom took part in the 2014 Occupy protests — feel the commemoration won’t serve any concrete purpose as Beijing will never change its ways regardless of what happens in Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 30.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Read more:

June 4 vigil: Here’s a venue suggestion

Why June 4 should be a reminder to stay vigilant toward PLA 

A Goddess of Democracy statue is seen at a commemoration event in Victoria Park. Photo: Bloomberg

Candles are seen from above during an annual vigil. Some young people now say they will stay away from the event as it doesn’t serve any purpose and has nothing to do with Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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