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Too dangerous to forget

Three decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the citizens of Hong Kong are confronting their own Communist incursion

Too dangerous to forget

June 4 candlelight vigil in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Seventy-year-old Li Pu, with white hair and the air of an intellectual, will tell you he has little hope left for democracy in his beloved homeland of China.

Still, on a humid night on June 4, you would have found Li sitting on the bleachers at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, awaiting the start of a candlelight vigil as he does nearly every year, when his health permits. The June 4 commemoration draws tens of thousands of people to the park on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre—the world’s largest annual gathering commemorating the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

“Even if we can’t do much,” Li says, “we must do what we can.”

Speaking in precise Mandarin, Li called the annual vigil “solace for your heart.” For 20 years Li (not his real name) taught in mainland China before his desire to better his country led him to participate in the 1989 protests. But after the Chinese army opened fire on peaceful civilians and students, a disheartened Li left for Hong Kong, then a British territory where many freedoms remained intact.

Since then, Britain has returned Hong Kong to China. And while China promised the territory a high degree of autonomy, many see that autonomy as disappearing.

“Hong Kong is not perfect,” said Li. “But it is free.” Each year, he sends messages to friends living in the mainland, reminding them that people haven’t forgotten about the massacre widely known as “June 4.”

This year’s 30th-anniversary commemoration saw a record turnout: 180,000 people, according to event organizers. The orderly crowd filled the park’s basketball courts, and each person clutched a lit candle while listening to speeches. Attendees sang the anthem of the 1989 protests, “Bloodstained Glory,” and chanted, “Vindicate June 4! Justice must prevail! End one-party rule!” Afterward, they collected their trash, and volunteers even scraped up candle wax that had dripped on the courts.

This year’s commemoration held an added significance: Hong Kong is now fighting its own battle for democracy, mirroring the struggle Tiananmen Square protesters faced three decades ago. In the past few years, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly encroached on Hong Kong, despite a promise to give the region autonomy until 2047.

Today the greatest threat to freedom in Hong Kong is the local government’s proposed amendments to extradition laws that would see people in Hong Kong sent to mainland China to face trials. Out of fear of the proposal, several vigil attendees WORLD spoke to were either unwilling to talk to foreign media or asked to use a pseudonym. Many fear that due to China’s lack of an independent judiciary and the Communist Party’s vindictiveness toward critics of the government, the extradition proposal would erode Hong Kong’s rule of law.

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

A mother explains photos displayed in the June 4th Museum in Hong Kong. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

THE ONLY MUSEUM dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre is located in a room on the 10th floor of a nondescript office building in Hong Kong’s busy Mongkok district. Inside, a digital counter marks the time that has elapsed since the massacre, and photos depict the weeks leading up to it. Memorabilia donated by the families of victims, including a bicycle helmet pierced by a bullet, sit inside a glass case. Some visitors congregate around a TV screen playing a documentary about Hong Kong reporters who witnessed the June 4 events, while others flip through binders filled with newspaper clippings about the crackdown.

The 1989 democracy protests began with the death of the reform-minded Secretary General Hu Yaobang. For seven weeks, students from Beijing universities congregated at Tiananmen Square—protesting, holding hunger strikes, and marching—to call for democracy, freedom of the press, and an end to government corruption. Chinese leaders took a hard-line response, denouncing the protest as “anti-government turmoil” and declaring martial law in Beijing. Meanwhile, workers and residents from all walks of life joined the students.

Everything changed on the night of June 3, when tanks rolled down the streets of Beijing, opening fire and even crushing civilians and students who stood in their way. By 5 a.m. the next day, the troops had emptied the square and left the city in chaos. “Changan Avenue, or the Avenue of Eternal Peace, Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, echoed with screams this morning as young people carried the bodies of their friends away from the front lines,” reported Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times on June 4, 1989. “The dead or seriously wounded were heaped on the backs of bicycles or tricycle rickshaws and supported by friends who rushed through the crowds, sometimes sobbing as they ran.”

In a press conference the next day, Chinese State Council spokesman Yuan Mu said an estimated 300 people had died, mostly soldiers. The actual death toll is unknown, but a declassified U.S. cable placed the death toll at between 500 and 2,600, with 10,000 injured. As Beijing hunted down leaders of the protests, a group of Hong Kong activists helped dissidents escape to Hong Kong and petitioned Western countries to grant them asylum. In total, “Operation Yellow Bird” helped 500 dissidents.

China goes to great lengths to make its people forget about the massacre. Yet on the 30th anniversary, some came to the Tiananmen Museum in order to remember. Angus Wong, a museum volunteer, said about 70 percent of visitors come from mainland China. At the gift shop counter, a group of mainland visitors discussed whether they would be stopped at the border if they purchased a flash drive filled with information about June 4. A woman with stylish short hair and large sunglasses asked for brochures that she could pass out to friends back in mainland China.

The woman in sunglasses spoke to me under the condition of anonymity, at times lowering her voice: She was a student at a Beijing university in 1989 and participated in the protests, although she didn’t go to the square on June 4, she said. She remembers her shock at hearing that the government had opened fire on the students.

This was her first year commemorating the anniversary in Hong Kong. While many young people in China are ignorant of the June 4 massacre, she and others of her generation often discuss it, she said. They also feel obligated to inform the next generation.

“It’s not sensible for the government to try to cover it up because everyone knows that it happened,” she said.

The candlelight vigil at Victoria Park illustrated the stark free-speech differences between mainland China and Hong Kong. Around the park, pro-democracy political groups set up booths and flags, with members using megaphones to ask attendees for donations and invite them to an upcoming demonstration against Hong Kong’s proposed extradition bill.

While Hong Kong is one of the few places on Chinese soil where politically sensitive topics like Tiananmen can be openly discussed, the Chinese Communist Party is constricting those freedoms. Hong Kong officials, on orders from Beijing, blocked former Tiananmen Square student leaders from entering the city to attend the vigil. Instead, the dissidents met in Taiwan with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and attended a vigil at Taipei’s Liberty Square. Yet even democratic Taiwan is feeling China’s reach: Several Taiwanese newspapers owned by pro-Beijing companies ignored Tsai’s meeting with the activists. 

In the years since Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement—a 79-day protest calling for the free election of the territory’s chief executive—democracy in Hong Kong has faced defeat after defeat. In 2015, the Chinese government kidnapped five Hong Kong booksellers for publishing gossipy books about China’s top leaders. Swedish national Gui Minhai, a prolific author and book publisher, remains imprisoned today. Then the Hong Kong government disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers for the minor offense of altering oaths as they were sworn into office. A Hong Kong court also sentenced four activists—including two co-founders of the pro-democracy group Occupy Central—to prison in April on public nuisance charges for their roles in the Umbrella Movement.

The only Occupy Central co-founder to have his sentence suspended, Baptist Pastor Chu Yiu-ming, spoke to the crowd at the candlelight vigil. The 75-year-old activist seemed wearied yet determined to continue fighting for democratic freedoms. “As long as someone suffers and is humiliated, I have to voice it,” he said.

Kin Cheung/AP

Protesters march in a rally against the proposed amendments to extradition law on June 9. (Kin Cheung/AP)

HONG KONG Chief Executive Carrie Lam hopes to pass the extradition proposal before the legislature goes on recess in July, a deadline many believe is unnecessarily rushed for such a controversial measure.

The legislation would allow case-by-case extraditions to countries with which Hong Kong does not have official treaties—most notably mainland China. The chief executive would be able to extradite the fugitive with only court approval, eliminating the need to pass through the Cabinet and the Hong Kong legislature.

Since returning to Chinese jurisdiction in 1997, Hong Kong has never had an extradition treaty with the mainland due to distrust that China’s legal system would provide fair trials and humane punishment. Lawyers, journalists, activists, and businessmen have all raised concerns regarding the extradition measure, but the Hong Kong leadership has made changes based on pro-Beijing businesses’ requests: It agreed only to extradite fugitives accused of crimes punishable by seven or more years in jail. It also removed nine economic crimes from the list of crimes that could lead to extradition, and agreed only to accept rendition requests made by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Supreme People’s Court in mainland China.

Meanwhile, the government ignored concerns that critics of the Communist Party would be targeted for extradition. Lam claims that the Hong Kong judiciary would act as a gatekeeper to stop politically or religiously motivated extraditions, but some judges worry the limited scope of hearings and pressure from the Chinese government would make it difficult for them to prevent an extradition, according to the Reuters news service. 

The Hong Kong government proposed the legislation in February after a Hong Kong national, Chan Tong-kai, allegedly killed his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan last year. Police arrested Chan in Hong Kong on charges of theft, but he faced charges for the murder only in Taiwan because Hong Kong doesn’t have an extradition agreement with Taiwan. (Taiwan officials have expressed their opposition to the extradition bill.)

On July 9, more than 1 million Hong Kong residents joined a protest decrying the extradition bill (see sidebar). In a letter from the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, eight bipartisan U.S. lawmakers asked Hong Kong to withdraw the proposed bill, stating that it “would irreparably damage Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy and protections for human rights” and “negatively impact the unique relationship between the United States and Hong Kong.”

Church groups have also spoken out: A letter signed by more than 1,000 Hong Kong Baptists said that the bill would allow the Chinese Communist Party “to extradite Hong Kong suspects at will [and] the rule of law will collapse.” The letter noted that the extradition proposal is especially concerning for Hong Kong Christians because the Chinese government is persecuting Christians in the mainland.

Some residents are voting with their feet. Lam Wing-Kee, one of the kidnapped booksellers, has fled to Taiwan over fears that the extradition law could send him back to China. Chinese officials had temporarily released him on condition he retrieve the bookstore’s hard drive and not speak to media, but he defied both orders.

OTHER HONG KONGERS also feel the need to leave. At the candlelight vigil, Martina Wong and Alex Leung sat cross-legged on a basketball court with their two young sons. They had come to the commemoration event because June 4 “reminds people of what the Chinese government did,” Wong said. “In the past, young people spoke out about democracy but were suppressed. We can no longer be suppressed.”

Leung, 45, believes China uses its massive economy to try to placate the people of Hong Kong while taking away their human rights. He worked at the Bank of China’s Hong Kong branch for three years, and said the company’s top objective was loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party: Before elections, he said, his superiors would remind all employees to vote for candidates who loved the party.

Last month Leung quit his job, and he and Wong now plan to move with their children to Germany in July. They fear that if they stay, their children will be brainwashed to accept Chinese Communist propaganda. They’ve shown their sons videos about the Tiananmen Square massacre and talked to them about its impact on China. One of the boys, 13-year-old Caden, explained he attended the vigil “50 percent because Mom brought me and 50 percent because I watched the news and saw unfair things. I can help Hong Kong by coming here.”

Li Pu, the former teacher, believes the Chinese government has only itself to blame for Hong Kongers’ increased attention on June 4 and their democratic freedoms.

“In Hong Kong, each time the number of participants at a protest increases, it’s because the Communist Party is trying to take over,” Li said. “People need a motivation pushing them from behind. Sheep run fastest when chased by wolves.” 

—with reporting by correspondent Erica Kwong

Million man march

More than 1 million people, according to organizer estimates, took to the streets of Hong Kong on June 9 to protest against the government’s controversial extradition bill, making it the largest protest ever held in the city of 7.5 million. (The police gave a much lower estimate of 240,000.)

Starting at around 3 p.m., protesters inched their way shoulder-to-shoulder down the streets from Victoria Park to the government headquarters in Admiralty. They wore white, the traditional color of mourning, and held red “No China Extradition” signs, which they also used to fan themselves in the sweltering heat.

Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images

(Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters chanted, “Repeal the evil law!” and “Carrie Lam, step down!” Some carried yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. In front of government headquarters, representatives from different sectors—including law and education—gave speeches in opposition to the bill.

The Sunday demonstration remained peaceful and orderly until late in the day, when a few hundred remaining protesters clashed with police after they tried to storm the Legislative Council building and hurled objects at the police. Riot police used batons and pepper spray to subdue the chaos and arrested 19 people. More than 300 may face prosecution for illegal assembly.

Despite the protest’s large turnout, Lam said she remains committed to moving forward with the extradition plan. —Erica Kwong

(Update: Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on June 15 that the Hong Kong government would suspend the extradition bill indefinitely. However protesters are still pushing for a full withdrawal of the bill.)

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.