Broken Dreams: The Death of Democratic China, and One Democratic China

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Political pressure is cracking the democratic movement into shards and pieces. No fewer than three distinct political movements held their own events to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The commemoration for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 has always been a major event on the Hong Kong political calendar.  As more people develop diverse ideas about what should be remembered – and what should be sought for the future – the democratic movement is fracturing.  Young and old, constructive and radical, inward and outward looking splits were all on display on June 4 2015. HT’s guest journalist from McGill University’s Tribune makes sense of the new landscape.

The candlelight vigil is traditionally held every year on June 4 by Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (the Alliance), Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and pen-democrats. In this occasion, local student leaders and democrats assemble and call for the CCP regime to democratise. Thousands would gather on the football grounds in Victoria Park.

The resemblance of current local student activism to Chinese students in 1989 plays a big part in the Alliance’s rhetoric. Inheriting the activist spirit is one of the major themes of the candlelight vigil. The legacy is symbolised by student leaders from the HKFS lighting their three feet tall torch from the Alliance’s fire goblet on stage, known as “passing on the fire (薪火相傳)”.

But not this year. June 4 2015 might be another special night to Hong Kong, when dreams are crushed, ideologies collide—and tomorrow, the city wakes up to another day.

Students disengage
The candlelight vigil in Victoria Park this year saw a visible decline in number of participants compared to previous years. According to the Alliance’s official figures, 135,000 participants attended the vigil this year. Chairman of the Alliance Albert Ho conceded that there were fewer vigil-goers than last year. It was recorded that 180,000 went in 2014, and 200,000 in 2009.

Ho speculated that the decrease might be due to lesser significance of a 26th anniversary compared to the 25th in 2014 and 20th in 2009. But it is more than just numbers.  The abrogation of some long-established rituals might suggest more substantial disengagement.

But it is more than just numbers.  The abrogation of some long-established rituals might suggest more substantial disengagement.

Weeks ahead in April, HKFS, a major player in the vigil, had declared that it was not going to join the vigil. With that being said, the student unions of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Hong Kong Shue Yan University (SYU), and Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) sent representatives to the vigil on behalf of their own schools, but not collectively. The torch-lighting ceremony was replaced by the burning of Basic Law on stage.

Moreover, with four of the eight original member universities having recently abandoned the HKFS via referendum, the organisation as a representative of the entire local student body is under question. HKFS has long been regarded as the ‘pan-dems junior’ as the federation usually engage in activism led by the Alliance and pan-dems. The breakaway of Hong Kong University (HKU), Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Hong Kong Baptist (HKBU) and City University of Hong Kong (CityU) seemed to be clear ‘no’ votes in confidence towards the Alliance and pan-dems.

Hong Kong Baptist University Student Union (BUSU) president Morris Chan felt pan-dems were too controlling when HKBU was still in the federation, and he prefers holding an alternative vigil. “Students can manifest their freedom holding a separate vigil,” he says. “That feels less ‘hijacked’ by pan-dems.”

The crushed dream of ‘One Democratic China’
This year, HKU held a separate vigil from the Alliance for the first time, attracting roughly 2,000 people. Candlelight filled Sun Yat-sun Place, an open space in the middle of HKU campus. The unspoken agenda was to establish a new platform for commemorating Tiananmen, or activism—sans patriotism.

“Rejoining China for democracy (民主回歸) does not help in ridding the colonial consciousness.”—Billy Fung, HKUSU President.

Hong Kong University Student Union (HKUSU) president Billy Fung expressed his doubt towards the idea of fighting for a democratic unified China with Hong Kong included in his opening speech at the HKU vigil. “Rejoining China for democracy (民主回歸) does not help in ridding the colonial consciousness,” he says. “Here today, we must ask ourselves one question: what kind of Hong Kong do we want to build?” The rhetoric contrasted greatly with the Alliance’s manifesto ‘construct a democratic China’.

Instead of trying to democratise the CCP regime from within for one democratic China, HKUSU rather sees the repressive regime as an external force predating Hong Kong, and a threat to be defended against. “2047, the end of ‘fifty years remain unchanged (五十年不變)’ is coming soon.” Fung says. “We must not run away, we must not back down. We stand here not for any regime, but to fight on for Hong Kong.”

Fung stated in his speech that he is well aware that what he was saying might easily be dismissed as foolish or unrealistic; nonetheless, he will cling to what he believes. He quotes lyrics from “Impossible Dream” in Man of La Mancha, “To dream the impossible dream/ To fight the unbeatable foe/ To bear with unbearable sorrow/ To run where the brave dare not go/ To right the unrightable wrong.”

BUSU president Morris Chan told HT that they held a similar view to HKUSU. “We disagree with the Alliance’s manifesto. Our ideas are aligned with HKUSU’s vigil,” he says.

Lingnan University (LingU) voted to stay in the federation. However, their student union chose not to attend the Alliance’s vigil to join HKU’s instead. According to Lingnan University Students’ Union (LNSU) president Phillip Lau, the Alliance lacks discourse, which LNSU highly values.

“HKU holds a discussion panel after the vigil. We think this is better than what the Alliance does,” Lau says. “[The Alliance] always does singalongs. We feel there is no substance.”

Lau’s view is shared by many students. Many felt an aesthetic fatigue towards the Alliance’s narrative of Tiananmen and the rituals at the Victorian vigil, the dissatisfaction thus transformed into resentment.

“The Alliance’s approach is too emotional and full of clichés. The sadness is over the top.” HKU Year 2 Arts student Nora Lam says, “The overdone sadness finds its roots in patriotic sentiments towards China and the CCP, which I don’t relate to.”

“HKU’s vigil is open to discussion of a localist agenda, which I find more appealing,” she adds.

Asked of whether HKU will continue holding its own vigil in years to come, Billy Fung said he could not give a definite answer. “That will depend on my successors,” Fung explains. “I have no control over what they will do.”

“The Alliance’s approach is too emotional and full of clichés. The sadness is over the top.”— Nora Lam, HKU student.

Rise the nation of Hong Kong
In Tsim Sha Tsui under the clock tower, around a thousand gathered, chanting, “Down with the CCP! (打倒共產黨)” and “Go to hell! (落地獄)”

Supporters of localist organisations like Civic Passion, Proletariat Political Institute and Hong Konger Front are occasionally dubbed ‘Fascists’ by the mainstream media. Angry speeches by localist leaders like Wong Yeung-tat (Civic Passion) and Wong Yuk-man (Proletariat Political Institute) has left a hooligan-like impression to the reserved, peace-loving Hong Kong public.

The radical image contributed to the unpopularity of the said localist organisations among the public. Even some localists would call themselves ‘far-right Fascists’, albeit satirically.

“The Alliance is lame,” a participant at the Tsim Sha Tsui assembly who wishes to remain anonymous tells HT, “and useless. They never seem to succeed in getting democracy for Hong Kong.”

The localist leaders emphasised on the violent nature of the CCP. “What June 4 reminds us Hongkongers of is that the CCP is a regime of murderers. […] It has no legitimacy,” Wong Yeung-tat says in his address to his supporters. “They’ll never give democracy to Hong Kong.”

Every time after a localist leader had finished his address, crowds would respond loudly, “Down with the CCP!” or “Rise the nation of Hong Kong! (香港建國)”

Being the prey in the Darwinist age
Yet what distinguishes localism from classic Fascism is the absence of expansionism. Hong Kong localism is founded upon fear of being dominated by a ‘foreign’ power. It is, fundamentally speaking, an extreme protective approach towards Hong Kong-China relations.

A large anti-CCP flag is hung on the stage. The antipathy is evident. “The Two-Way Passes issued by China are meant to dilute local consciousness,” spokesperson of Hong Konger Front Cheng Chung-tai says on stage. “Rise the nation of Hong Kong!”

Many seemed to buy into Cheng’s rhetoric. “Look at what CCP has done in Hong Kong over the post-Handover years,” Ryan Pang, a participant at the Tsim Sha Tsui assembly says. “They flouted ‘one country, two system’, the Joint Declaration, and the Basic Law—which was written by themselves. […] How could we trust such a regime? […] We are now living in the darkest times.”

“It’s like playing Black Jack, you have to bluff.”—Oscar Lui, participant at the Tsim Sha Tsui assembly.

HT asked several participants whether the honestly agree with the slogan ‘rise the nation of Hong Kong’. Surprisingly, it seemed not.

“Hong Kong does not have the resources for independence,” the anonymous participant explains. “It is not going to happen.”

“It’s like playing Black Jack, you have to bluff,” says Oscar Lui, another participant at the Tsim Sha Tsui assembly. “Some of us here [in Tsim Sha Tsui] realised that the CCP actually feared that sort of claim. In reaction to that, they might be willing to accept alternatives; and so we must make full use of it to bargain for our freedom and future.”

“I am a pessimistic person,” he says. “I don’t think Hongkongers are capable of good governance on their own. It will just be as bad.”

What next?
In Sun Yat-sen Place, a group of children, from nine to twelve years old, joined in the HKU vigil. These children were brought here by the Kwun Tong Happy Teens Club under Hong Kong Christian Service. Esther Tse, the social worker in charge, decided that the children should learn what happened in 1989—by personally participating.

“Some of them have been to Victoria Park last year,” she explains. “We let them decide what to believe after hearing what the guest speakers say. We prefer not to teach them. We don’t want to impose anything.”

Some of the children actually volunteered to come to the vigil. “Some of them asked to come along,” Tse says. “Some parents asked us to take them here.”

Student volunteers gave the children white candles. The kids lit each of their candles from one another’s. They sat through the vigil, patiently listening to the sharings by guest speakers.

“We prefer not to teach them. We don’t want to impose anything.”—Esther Tse, social worker.

From the veterans at the Victoria Park’s candlelight vigil to the 12 year olds in Sun Yat-sen Place, the one thing these people can agree on is that what happened on June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing is wrong and democracy is the only bulwark against ensuring it doesn’t  happen in Hong Kong. On that, they can agree.