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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Tiananmen Square, 1989

September 20, 2017
Athena Tong discusses why politics is considered 'dirty business' in Hong Kong and the importance of remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

A protest banner in memory of the protests. Pic: Wolfram Burner (Flickr)

Where, according to season 16 of the Simpsons, nothing happened.

Of course, nobody actually thinks that, at least not in Hong Kong. One of the many wonderful things about growing up in the cosmopolitan city is free flow of information, and so Hong Kong is the sole host on Chinese soil of an annual vigil commemorating the lost souls in Beijing in 1989.

June this year, however, is not a month in which we talked about the brutality of what happened. Instead, Hong Kong turned to face the next generation of citizens, and found that they don’t care much for the acknowledgment of this part of history. Victoria Park witnessed the lowest number of participants in nine years for the annual event, where the public gathered with candlelight and reminded themselves of the sacrifices made for the betterment of China.

The indifference was triggered partly by localist thinking, the concept that Hong Kong should come first, and that it is separate from Mainland China. Discourses like Trump’s “America first” may come to mind, but the funny thing is Hong Kong politics is not defined by the traditional left-right archetype; each party is more defined by its level of sympathy towards the Beijing government than by how liberal or conservative it is.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Pic: _chrisUK (flickr)

A factor which may be relevant for most of the young absentees would be their generation’s moment of political awakening – the Umbrella Movement of 2014. What happened in 1989 was THE moment that got people active in politics. One must understand that Hong Kong before 2014 has always been a city which did not care much for politics: in fact, children are advised against being politically active. It’s “dirty business” as they say.

In 2014, close to 100,000 people occupied the main financial districts for 79 days to protest China’s decision to vet candidates for the Chief Executive election before letting citizens vote for their own leader. The peaceful, unarmed students were attacked with tear gas and pepper spray – a rare use of force in Hong Kong. The duty to protect inspired many to join the students after 28 September 2014. Thus, the young generation built their identity around this shared experience, distancing the 1989 massacre from Hong Kong’s collective memory.

The city itself was very close to repeating such history during the protests of 2014, many were certain that Beijing would once again send their tanks into city centre, and were trembling at the idea of which young person would become the next Tank Man. Given the spirit of the Movement itself, the city has all the more reason to remember and mourn – democracy does not have borders, it’s a universal value; and if Hong Kong wants any part of it, the idea needs to penetrate China first.

History is written by the victors, and should we ignore the censorship exercised by the Chinese government, the massacre may become lost in the rhetoric of a strong, bold and united China. What has been achieved by our precedents is what we build our successes upon, and what we fall on should we fail, and so it is our duty to remember.

Find more from Athena Tong, @thepowerofawish