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Passing the Torch of June Fourth: Demanding Accountability for the Past, Claiming a Democratic Future

December 21, 2012

In May-June 2009, in Hong Kong, students and artists in their late-teens and early-20s organized the P-at-Riot: June Fourth Festival for the Post-80s Generation (80後六四文化祭)—a cultural festival commemorating the 1989 Democracy Movement in China and paying tribute to the victims of the subsequent military crackdown. The festival was organized for youths and by youths, and propagated mostly via the Internet.1 “To us, June Fourth is not just a part of history that we are waiting to be redressed, but an attitude that can be passed down to the next generation,” the organizers wrote. In their ten-point manifesto, they vowed to “embrace history and continue the fine values of the past in the future” and “keep their voices open and speak frankly of any injustice.”2

All the organizers were born after the tragic event and grew up with a school curriculum that downplays both the 1989 Democracy Movement and the June Fourth crackdown. But now they are joining their parents and parents’ parents who have supported, for more than two decades, the call for official accountability and justice.

On May 21, 1989, one day after martial law was declared in Beijing, Hong Kong people took to the street to show their support for the democracy movement protesters on the mainland and voice their opposition to the government’s harsh response. An estimated 11,000 people gathered first at Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island,3 a major public gathering site, growing to over 1 million as they marched to the Xinhua News Agency office,4 the de facto representative of the Beijing government during Hong Kong's colonial era. During the protests, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China was formed in solidarity with the Democracy Movement in mainland China.

On June 3, 1989, Chinese leaders ordered the People’s Liberation Army to clear Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where protesters had gathered, to prepare for a military crackdown. In the early hours of June 4, the troops opened fire on unarmed students and civilians in the square and surrounding areas. According to an internal document, more than 2,000 people died in Beijing and other cities on June 3 and 4 and the days immediately following. As the crackdown was widely covered in Hong Kong’s local press,5 Hong Kong people marched again on June 5.6

Candlelight vigil, Victoria Park. Hong Kong, June 4, 2010. Photo credit: Judith Blue Pool.

Since 1990, the Hong Kong Alliance has organized annual candlelight vigils on every anniversary of the June Fourth crackdown in Victoria Park. Though an estimated 150,000 people turned out to observe the first anniversary, the numbers dipped over time to only tens of thousands.7 But in 2009, on the 20th anniversary, the Hong Kong Alliance estimated 150,000 participated.8 The numbers remained high in subsequent years,9 swelling to an estimated 180,000 in 2012. 10

These vigils, unique in the world, are more than just commemorations. They have, over the years, fostered a linkage between demanding for redress for past and present human rights abuses and pressing for a democratic future.11

Though increased Hong Kong civic engagement and participation by mainlanders12 may account for the rising number of participants in June Fourth vigils since 2009, Hong Kong Alliance organizers observe that the young people of Hong Kong—particularly those born after 1980 and 1990, known as the “post-80s” and “post-90s”—constitute a significant part of the increase.13 Former Hong Kong Alliance Vice-chairman Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) told South China Morning Post in June 2010, “About 70 percent of participants are young people below the age of 30—the group we call the post-80s generation.”14 Surveys support the organizers’ observation: In 2010, a poll of participants at the candlelight vigil by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme (HKU POP) found that 54 percent were under 30, and in 2011, the HKU POP poll found that 58 percent were.15

Following the June Fourth Festival for the Post-80s Generation in May-June 2010, other youths also embraced the “post-80s” identification, as evidenced in actions such as the Post-80s Anti-Express Railway Group (八十後反高鐵青年)16 and Post-80s Youth Against Unrightful Authority (八十後反特權青年).17 The term “post-80s” has been used increasingly to signify socially-conscious Hong Kong youths concerned with mainland affairs and who are connected via online social networks. These post-80s and post-90s—are the same youths who join student unions—the Hong Kong Federation of Students (香港專上學生聯) and individual university and secondary school student groups. They are also involved with independent media such as InMediaHK and Citizens’ Radio, giving out publications and adding their voices to the demand for government accountability for June Fourth.18

But these young Hong Kongers are not alone. Increasingly, their mainland counterparts, including mainland students studying abroad, have begun speaking out about June Fourth and about the importance of a democratic future for China.19

For many of these young people, commemorating June Fourth is more than about demanding justice for past human rights violations. Activist Joshua Wong, a leader of the anti-national education group Scholarism who participated in the May 27, 2012 June Fourth protest march, told iSunAffairs, “Why do I want June Fourth to be redressed? Because I want there to be democracy in China . . . . We still have a bit of freedom of speech and assembly in Hong Kong. Since we still can commemorate June Fourth, we will be able to hold fast and go on to the next step, to fight for democracy in Hong Kong, and in China.”20

 

Notes

1. Human Rights in China, “Timeline of June Fourth Activities around the World,” June Fourth: 1989-2009, http://www.hrichina.org/june4/activities/world.^

2. P-at-Riot: 80後六四文化祭, http://www.facebook.com/groups/57082828826/.^

3. Barbara Basler, “UPHEAVAL IN CHINA; Hong Kong Turns Out in Protest against Its Once and Future Ruler,” The New York Times, May 21, 1989, http://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/21/world/upheaval-china-hong-kong-turns-protest-against-its-once-future-ruler.html.^

4. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, “Our Story,” http://www.alliance.org.hk/english/The_Alliance/our_story.html.^

5. “Baozhang touban” [報章頭版], The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, http://www.alliance.org.hk/64/frontpage/frontpage_new.html.^

6. Richard Bernstein, “Vast Hong Kong Crowd Protests Beijing’s Action,” The New York Times, June 5, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/specials/hongkong/archive/89065vast-hong-kong.html.^

7. Clare Cheung and Bei Hu, “Annual Tiananmen Square Vigil Draws Thousands,” Bloomberg News, June 5, 2008, http://www.nysun.com/foreign/annual-tiananmen-square-vigil-draws-thousands/79317/.^

8. Miranda Leitsinger, “Organizers: 150,000 at Tiananmen Vigil in Hong Kong,” CNN, June 4, 2009, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/06/02/tiananmen.hong.kong/index.html.^

9. In 2010, organizers estimated over 150,000, see Jonathan Cheng, “Thousands in Hong Kong Attend Tiananmen Vigil,” The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704764404575286491512662372.html; in 2011, organizers again estimated over 150,000, see Billy Chan, “Hong Kong March, Candle-lit Vigil Marks Tiananmen Crackdown Anniversary,” Bloomberg News, June 5, 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-04/hong-kong-residents-to-hold-vigil-marking-tiananmen-crackdown-anniversary.html.^

10. Luisetta Mudie, “Hong Kong Holds Tiananmen Vigil,” Radio Free Asia, June 4, 2012, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/vigil-06042012095818.html^

11. See “Lee Cheuk Yan on Hong Kong as a Cherished Place,” HRIC Interview, China Rights Forum, 2011, no. 4, http://www.hrichina.org/crf/article/5832.^

12. Over 30,000 mainlanders reportedly participated in the 2012 candlelight vigil. Shu Lam [舒琳], “Jin ye, Xianggang liu si zhuguang tebie mingliang” [今夜,香港六四燭光特別明亮] Yazhou Zhoukan [亞洲周刊], June 17, 2012, http://www.yzzk.com/cfm/Content_Archive.cfm?Channel=az&Path=2391051282/24az1.cfm; “Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Vigil Sees Record Turnout,” Want China Times, June 5, 2012, http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20120605000138&cid=1101&MainCatID=11.^

13. P H Yang, “Record Turnout for June 4 Vigil in Hong Kong,” P H Yang Photography, June 4, 2010, http://photo.phyang.org/june4_2010.htm.^

14. Maggie Chen, “Young Join Ranks at Candle-light Vigil,” South China Morning Post, November 30, 2010, http://www.scmp.com/article/731982/young-join-ranks-candle-light-vigil.^

15. Joseph Chan, Francis Lee, and Robert Chung [陳韜文、鍾庭耀及李立峰],  “Anti-June 4 Remembering Discourse and Reinforcement of June 4 Collective Memory: Results of the On-site survey of June Fourth Candlelight Vigil (1)” [反六四論述與六四集體記憶的強化: 燭光晚會現場調查結果(一)], June 30, 2011, http://hkupop.hku.hk/english/columns/columns117.html; Joseph Chan, Francis Lee, and Robert Chung [陳韜文、鍾庭耀及李立峰], “Passing on June 4 Collective Memory: Results of the On-site Survey of June Fourth Candlelight Vigil (2)” [六四集體記憶的代際承傳: 燭光晚會現場調查結果(二)], July 1, 2011, http://hkupop.hku.hk/english/columns/columns118.html.^

16. “Post 80s Anti-Express Railway,” Hong Kong Digital PhotoVision, January 11, 2010, http://www.hkdigit.net/2010/01/post-80s-anti-express-railway/.^

17. Post-80’s Youth against Unrightful Authority [八十後反特權青年行動], “Blindfolded for 22 Years, It Is Time to Lift the Shroud of Pseudo-democracy” [八十後反特權青年行動宣言], June 11, 2010, http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=399279332996.^

18. The University of Hong Kong Student Union has made newer editions of their June Fourth special publications available for download at http://www.undgrad.hkusu.hku.hk/download.html. The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Student Press also has the full text of their 2012 June Fourth special edition available online at Chinese University Student Press, The Paint Has Not Dried [油漆未乾] (2012), http://cusp.hk/?p=2792.^

19. Fan Huchang et al, “Open Letter from Chinese Students Abroad to Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping in Advance of the 18th Party Congress,” China Rights Forum, 2012, no. 1, http://www.hrichina.org/crf/article/6130.^

20. Wong Lai-ping [黃麗萍], “Xianggang. Zhe yi dai de liu si” [香港。這一代的六四], iSunAffairs Weekly [陽光時務週刊], June 4, 2012, http://www.isunaffairs.com/?p=6505^

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