The generations are warring in Hong Kong over the memory of Tiananmen

Burning bright—but for how much longer?
Burning bright—but for how much longer?
Image: Reuters/Aaron Tam
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For almost three decades, thousands have gathered each year in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the tragedy of June 4, 1989, when the Chinese military cracked down on protesters who had for weeks gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand democracy, government accountability, and civil liberties.

But the memory of Tiananmen has long been a contested one, said Edmund Cheng, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University who has studied the history of the city’s annual vigil—the only place on Chinese soil where commemoration of the event is permitted.

While the pro-democracy camp has long used the vigil to etch the Communist Party’s brutal repression into citizens’ collective memory and to mobilize Hong Kongers in their enduring fight for democracy, there has long been an opposing narrative from pro-China forces, Cheng explained during a conference last month: that the massacre was for the greater good of the country, that no-one really knows what happened, and that Tiananmen should be scrubbed from memory altogether. That counter-narrative has not had much success, Cheng said, as the vigil continued to draw a large turnout over the years.

Since about 2012, however, a new force has emerged to push back against the annual vigil: the rise of localism.

Localism champions the idea that Hong Kong identity is separate to mainland Chinese, and argues for the protection of the city’s values and traditions. Localists want a certain degree of separation from China, though not necessarily independence, said Samson Yuen, who is co-authoring a paper with Cheng on the vigil.

“Sentimentally, they do not want to deal with anything to do with China, even though they know consciously that if you want democracy you have to negotiate with China,” Yuen said at the conference. “But emotionally, they don’t want to deal with it.”

This has meant that a growing faction, made up largely of a younger generation of Hong Kongers, is questioning the rationale behind the Tiananmen vigil. They see China’s fight for democracy as entirely separate to that of Hong Kong’s, and see no obligation to commemorate June 4, said Cheng. Still, the vast majority of young Hong Kongers believe that the Chinese government was wrong to violently crack down on the protesters in 1989, according to a poll by the University of Hong Kong.

In fact, many perceive the vigil as promoting Chinese nationalism, which “emotionally binds Hong Kong people to the Chinese nation and diverts attention from Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy,” the researchers said in an interview with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFR).

This has led to a declining turnout to the vigil in recent years, amplified by the rise in the average age of attendees. A leading student organization made up of all student unions from the city’s publicly funded universities has boycotted the vigil since 2015 and held their own rival events, which they make sure are not “twisted with patriotic thoughts,” as one organizer of the alternative vigil put it.

“The proportion of regular participants (those who have attended ten or more times) has been rising, while the proportion of young participants has declined,” Cheng and Yuen told CEFR. “This trend was entrenched by the Umbrella Movement in 2014, as the perceived failure of the protest further fragmented the pro-democracy camp and channelled their infighting to what the candlelight vigil means for the pro-democracy movement,” they said, referring to the large-scale protests in Hong Kong calling for more democratic elections.

Localists, Cheng said, “are actually the agency that is more able to challenge the memory of the past.”

Tonight’s (June 4) vigil may reverse that trend and see record attendance, however, amid public anger over a proposed extradition bill that would allow the Hong Kong government to send people suspected of crimes to jurisdictions with which it does not currently have extradition agreements, including mainland China.