26 October 2016
A file picture shows people, young and old, raising their candles during the annual vigil in Victoria Park. This year's event still attracted more than 100,000 attendees despite calls for a boycott. Photo: HKEJ
A file picture shows people, young and old, raising their candles during the annual vigil in Victoria Park. This year's event still attracted more than 100,000 attendees despite calls for a boycott. Photo: HKEJ

Why an old vigil can renew itself to remain relevant

Over the 27 years since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, attendance at the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park has waxed and waned.

The way the event is held and the recognition the organizers receive have remained largely stable, however.

But cracks started to appear a few years ago when young participants found they could no longer identify with the main slogans: “Vindicate June 4” and “Democracy for China”.

Their rationale is not hard to comprehend: why are we appealing to the Chinese Communist Party, with blood on its hands, for its vindication of the student protestors it killed in 1989?

And, as the students say, in the face of the party’s indifference, not only is democracy for China out of sight, but Hong Kong itself as a free society is now in peril.

People should shift their efforts to defending their own city.

The debate prior to the anniversary this year was hijacked by the rabid mud-slinging between those who support and those who spurn the vigil, and garbled media reports only added to the confusion.

That confusion remained until Ming Pao Daily ran in full a statement by Althea Suen Hiu-lam, chairwoman of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, at a separate event — a forum held at HKU on the evening of June 4.

Suen said the students want to boycott the annual routine mourning of the martyrs, which now seems like a ritual, and the tagline that comes along with it, whether it be patriotism or love for China.

She and other student leaders still observed a minute of silence for those killed in and around Tiananmen Square 27 years ago.

It’s reassuring to see that the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park still garnered more than 100,000 attendees Saturday evening while students and some of the city’s prominent news commentators shared their insights at alternative events at HKU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It’s natural for Hong Kong’s young activists, having been embittered by the setback to the Occupy movement, to vent their spleen at strategies and rituals they deem to be of no avail, and the candlelight vigil is one of them.

What angers them most is not the repetition of platitudes but that such an event is becoming irrelevant to the local democratic movement.

They argue people should instead focus on how to explore a way out from the party’s coercion and, before it becomes too late, make sure Hong Kong can continue with its way of life after 2047.

The two open forums held at HKU and CUHK were all about how Hong Kong should move forward.

I chatted with young participants during the past vigils, and what I found was, while appreciating the perseverance of old-line democrats and the vigil itself, which marked their political awakening, they wanted the event’s organizers to blaze a trail that feeds into Hong Kong’s own pursuit of democracy.

Yet the inaction on the part of the organizers, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, to incorporate young people’s views into their platform has helped the dissident views spread further in the raging debates and even wars of words between the older and younger camps.

Meanwhile, emerging signs warrant attention: a Ming Pao survey found most of those who attended the vigil favor the Civic Party, Demosistō and Youngspiration over the Democratic Party, although the Democrats are the largest pan-democratic political group.

What the Civic Party, Demosistō and Youngspiration have in common is a stated manifesto calling for self-determination, and that call has become the consensus of most vigil attendees, who are believed to be middle-of-the-road pan-dem supporters.

These findings offer some foresight into the Legislative Council election in September.

The survey also found that Hong Kong Indigenous is the most popular party among the audience at the two university forums, and the Democratic Party sits at the opposite end of the popularity ratings.

It’s proof that localism and Hong Kong independence now have a rising resonance in the city, at least on campuses.

Those who still chose to go to Victoria Park on Saturday despite calls for a boycott harbor a profound ambivalence toward the vigil’s organizers, whose hidebound mindset has already driven away the younger generation.

So, what changes should the organizers make?

The first thing is to change slogans and the alliance’s own name, in particular to remove words like “vindicate”, “patriotic”, and so on, to mollify the localist camp.

Senior democrats should also invite others to join the vigil’s organizing committee.

And they need to make the vigil an annual occasion to denounce the Communist Party’s tyranny and remember not just the Tiananmen martyrs but all the victims of communism, those who were slain in several rounds of calamities since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 6.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


A student wears a T-shirt at the vigil with a slogan reading "Reject fake suffrage". Young activists want the event to be more relevant to Hong Kong’s own pursuit of democracy. Photo: HKEJ

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

EJI Weekly Newsletter