Remembering Tiananmen Square

The Economist, Analects–HONG Kong is braced for what may be the most politically charged protest since May 21st, 1989, when 1.5m people flooded the streets. That was eight years before the city returned to Chinese rule, one day after authorities declared martial law in Beijing, and two weeks before Chinese troops unleashed deadly violence, on June 4th, to clear Tiananmen Square of demonstrators. A sprawling Hong Kong park named after Queen Victoria has since become the site of a yearly candlelight vigil; elsewhere in China commemoration of the June 4th crackdown remains strictly forbidden.

Organisers predict a record turnout of more than 150,000 participants will fill the park’s six football pitches Wednesday evening for the 25th anniversary of the crackdown. This will follow a smaller demonstration (pictured above) held in the city on June 1st. On June 4th a pro-Beijing group will, for the first time, stage a counter rally outside the gates of Victoria Park. That group, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, plans to show a video calling on people to question the 1989 student movement and forget about the past. Chairman Patrick Ko Tat-pun said (in Chinese) the central government was “wise” for its “decisive actions” to restore social order and “protect national security”. 

All this reflects a shift in the established political rhythms of the city, which has increasingly become a focal point for dissent in China as a whole. Pro-establishment and pro-democracy groups are coming into direct conflict, while concerns about the erosion of civil liberties are on the rise.

“It used to be the case where pro-government groups would celebrate in the morning and pro-democracy groups would march in the afternoon. Now we see mutual respect in decline and a spate of incidents showing that Beijing suffers an acute sense of insecurity,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

Mr Cheng was the main organiser of a conference about the Tiananmen events of 1989 held over the weekend. Many were outraged when it emerged that a Taiwanese academic wasdenied entry into the city to speak at the conference. Professor Tseng Chien-yuan of Chung Hua University was told upon arrival at the Hong Kong airport that Beijing had cancelled his travel permit. Mr Tseng said that despite being neither a politician nor a security threat, he is now banned from the city. 

In April a former Tiananmen Square activist was refused entry to Hong Kong to attend the opening of the world’s first museum dedicated to the June 4 crackdown. Prominent activists have been barred entry before, but the banning from Hong Kong of academics is highly unusual.

“This does not bode well for Hong Kong. The invisible hand of Beijing has become tangible now,” said Ching Cheong, a founding member of Independent Commentators Association, a free speech advocacy group.    

Earlier this year, a brutal knife attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to, a former chief editor of a local Chinese-language newspaper known for its investigative reporting, shocked Hong Kong and international observers alike. Under Mr Lau, the newspaper had taken part in a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that revealed the offshore holdings of some of China’s elite, including stakes in companies owned by relatives of Xi Jinping, China’s president. Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO, has warnedthat China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over Hong Kong media. 

Meanwhile, Beijing has ruled out public nominations for candidates for the chief executive election in 2017. Beijing has promised to allow for selection of Hong Kong’s leader through universal suffrage for the first time by that date, but insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process. A group called Occupy Central is threatening to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the local government does not offer up an electoral reform proposal that would meet international standards.

But Occupy Central leader Benny Tai said he wouldn’t provoke Beijing by officially supporting Wednesday’s June 4th events. The organisers of the yearly candlelight vigil in Victoria Park have long stressed Hong Kong’s responsibility to speak on behalf of those who are silenced in mainland China. Yet as the events this week and in the upcoming months may show, people in Hong Kong seem increasingly anxious about losing their own voices.

Image: Huge protest in Hong Kong on May 21, 1989

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