Francis Moriarty: Hong Kong's protest against amnesia

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WILLIAMSTOWN — There are days we'd like to remember, there are days we'd prefer to forget. Sometimes there are dates that people insist on remembering even when an authoritarian regime demands that they forget.

So it is for China's leaders, who are neuralgic when it comes to dates on a calendar. Since the early days of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose leaders were mainly trained in the Soviet Union and operated under Moscow's control, the CCP's leaders have altered or buried facts — even dates of births, deaths and marriages — deemed inconvenient.

Despite the increasingly robust efforts by Beijing to implement the inducing of amnesia at home and overseas, there are people who insist on remembering a date that is fast approaching. That date is June 4.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre carried out in the early hours of June 4, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping — who headed the military commission — gave the order for armored units to enter into the heart of the capital and crush the student-led protest for democracy. Hundreds and possibly thousands of protesters and Beijing residents died in the attack, carried out by soldiers specifically drawn from areas that were well away from the capital.

A large chunk of those people who refuse to forget the events of June 4 live in Hong Kong, a former British colony and the only place on PRC soil where people can legally gather to remember those who were killed and wounded in the crackdown.

There is background that helps explain these enduring emotions. A significant fact is that the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong's residents are either refugees, or the descendants of refugees, who fled China's civil war or who managed to flee the decades of ensuing miseries.

Prior to the crackdown, the Chinese government imposed martial law in Beijing on May 20. On the evening of that order, a massive typhoon hit Hong Kong, a major seaport on the southeastern coast. The city was shuttered and traffic nonexistent. But pro-democracy organizers called for a protest march that was to terminate outside Beijing's de facto consulate, the New China News Agency (NCNA, now known simply as Xinhua).

The office was located only about a quarter-mile from my apartment. Although off duty, I donned a poncho and headed off to see who showed up. By time I had walked there the rain had turned into torrents that rolled in sheets off the vehicular flyways overhead. I arrived thoroughly soaked and trying to protect my notebook from the torrential downpour.

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Amazingly, people were arriving in droves, eventually numbering 80,000 and even including individuals — like Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and Gary Cheng Kai-nam — who would go on to become the chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing political party. Tsang was clearly emotional and waved off my request to interview him. Cheng, a member of the organizing committee, was standing on the speakers' platform. He suddenly grabbed a bullhorn and joined in chanting "Down with Li Peng!" Li was the hardline premier who had joined with Deng in giving the crackdown order.

The armed intervention that followed on June 4 brutally ended the era of China's gradual opening up after decades of famine and poverty under Mao Zedong's iron-fisted rule. Optimism about the nation's future was effectively snuffed. Hong Kong people held a spontaneous mass demonstration. It was a silent protest — no speeches, no chants.

I was assigned to cover the event and, only recently arrived in Hong Kong, I was not sure what to expect. I stationed myself at a bend on an elevated expressway and watched in awe as as entire families — the elderly, the lame, people in wheelchairs, babies pushed in carriages and strollers — soundlessly passed by. I heard only the shuffling of feet and muffled weeping from those who could not contain their grief.

It was profoundly moving.

The first remembrance vigil was held in 1990 and has been organized every year since. The event is held in a vast park and draws tens of thousands of participants, and sometimes more than 100,000. The solemn ceremony includes video of the crackdown, speeches by exiled participants in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, remembrances by mothers of the victims, and — increasingly — the participation of young people with the aim of assuring that the memory remains alive. Visitors from the mainland have become commonplace.

This year's vigil comes amid Beijing's overall tightening of the screws on those in Hong Kong who object to the ways that the Communist Party and its local adherents are steadily undermining the territory's promised freedoms and the rule of law, as well as stonewalling any effort to strengthen the autonomy of the city.

Hong Kong authorities have not only closed off efforts by dissidents to run for political office, they have sought to prevent them from taking office if they do get elected. Critics of the government also allege that the courts are being politicized and the rule of law undermined. News organizations, both local and foreign, are protesting efforts to curb press freedom and free speech.

This year's vigil will be more than a moment to remember a painful past. It will be a measure of discontent with Beijing's currently tightening embrace.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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