HONG KONG - Twenty-five years later, memorial candles still fill this city's Victoria Park to honor those who died in a military assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989.
As China's growing financial might continues to enhance its clout on the global stage, it seems much of the world would like to forgive and forget the brutal crackdown ordered by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, but the tens of thousands of Hong Kong faithful who poured into the park this June 4 were determined to
keep the Tiananmen flame burning.
The organizers of the annual candlelight vigil, the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, claimed a record turnout of more than 180,000, while a rival pro-Beijing rally attracted only 20 loyalists.
Headcounts show that attendance at the event - the only such remembrance allowed on Chinese soil - has varied greatly over the years, but activists pushed for a big turnout for this important anniversary date. They got what they wanted and, in the mathematics of protest, big numbers equate to big statements.
The message for the Chinese leadership coming from the mass of civilized humanity gathered in Hong Kong on Wednesday night was simple, loud and clear: reverse the official verdict on the June 4 movement as a "counter-revolutionary riot" and apologize for the bloody crackdown in which hundreds, if not thousands, were killed, many of them young students in the prime of their lives.
The response from Beijing - silence - was to be expected and, now that the yearly exercise in catharsis is over, Hong Kong must put out its candles and go back to the ordinary and sometimes exhausting business of every-day life in this overheated, overworked city of 7.1 million people; it must also face up to the multi-layered complexity of its relationship with the mainland.
The Sino-British agreement that led to the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China after more than 150 years of colonial rule was supposed to guarantee the city's autonomy, free media and rule of law for the next 50 years, but signs abound that Hong Kong's cherished freedoms and legal protections are eroding as Beijing's heavy hand is increasingly felt in its affairs.
Hong Kong's constitution, called the Basic Law, promises full democracy to the city, and the 2017 election for chief executive is being touted as the fulfillment of that promise; as the wrangling over election procedures intensifies, however, it appears likely that a nominating committee largely controlled by Beijing will select candidates for the city's top job.
If that turns out to be the case, then, yes, Hong Kong's next chief executive will be chosen by universal suffrage. But if the competing candidates are first screened by authorities in Beijing is that true democracy?
The deeply unpopular current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is believed by many to be a closet member of the Communist Party but, whether or not that is true, it is clear that he is taking orders from the central government and that Hong Kong's vaunted autonomy is shredding a little more each day.
Many people sense this, and their resentment of Leung and of just about anything associated with the mainland has reached a boiling point. Anti-mainland street protests have become commonplace, social-networking sites rail against the "locust" invasion of Hong Kong by mainland tourists and an Occupy Central movement threatens to paralyze the city's business district if the government's proposed blueprint for democracy does not pass muster.
Indeed, this lashing out against everyone and everything from the mainland can be vicious and unreasoned. One could even call it racist if not for the fact that both parties involved are the same race.
That this ugly side of Hong Kong is surfacing with increasing frequency betrays the city's deep-seated fear that it is losing its identity as a stubborn bastion of freedom and Cantonese language and culture in an authoritarian country where Mandarin is the language of officialdom and which demands obedience and loyalty to the central government.
No doubt this growing hostility toward the mainland played a role in boosting the turnout for the June 4 vigil this year; many of those holding candles Wednesday night were born after the crackdown and thus have no memory of the blood that was shed in June of 1989 or of the massive show of support in Hong Kong at the time for the students who led the occupation of Tiananmen Square.
One million protestors took to Hong Kong's streets in the aftermath of what was then viewed as a massacre of innocents, and some of the student leaders most wanted by China's security forces - such as Li Lu and Chai Ling - were provided a safe haven in Hong Kong before being spirited off to a life of exile in the West.
But that was then; now when middle-aged former June 4 leaders such as Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi come knocking on Hong Kong's door they are turned away by immigration officials as personae non grata.
The young people raising candles in Victoria Park may not even know the names of the former student leaders who launched the historical movement they were commemorating, but they do know that Hong Kong's unique identity as an East-West crossroads is under threat and fear that their lives may not be as free and full of opportunity as those of their parents.
Their frustration, anger and complete lack of faith in Hong Kong's dysfunctional political system amount to the city's biggest challenge. Without greater buy-in from the young, Hong Kong faces a troubled future for which there are plenty of obvious signs in its edgy present.
No event over the past year was more shocking than the meat-cleaver attack on one of the city's most prominent and respected journalists, Kevin Lau chun-to, former chief editor of the daily newspaper Ming Pao, as he was walking in broad daylight toward his favorite breakfast haunt last February in the Sai Wan Ho district, a middle-class residential area on Hong Kong Island only a few minutes by underground train from the central business district.
Lau, now recovering in a Hong Kong hospital, nearly died from the vicious attack, apparently carried out by two triad hitmen whose employer is - and almost certainly will continue to be - unknown.
Shortly before Lau was chopped multiple times in his back and legs, he had been inexplicably replaced as Ming Pao's chief editor by a Malaysian journalist viewed as more sympathetic to the central government. The surprise demotion came after the paper ran a number of editorials calling for greater democratic reforms in Hong Kong and teamed up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to publish a series of reports revealing the prodigious offshore assets of relatives of Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and former premier Wen Jiabao.
It is journalism like that which makes Hong Kong such a special place - indeed, the only place in China that still holds the Chinese leadership to account for the horror of June 4, 1989, among other high crimes and misdemeanors.
The paymaster for the brazen attack on Lau - just the latest in a series of assaults over the past 15 years on Hong Kong journalists and media owners who criticize the central government - may never be known, but you can be sure about its chilling message to the Hong Kong media: back off or beware.
Hopefully, such violent and brutish communiques will not faze the city's unruly clan of editors and hacks, who in the face of such threats continue to be a refreshingly lively, brash and insuppressible lot.
Certainly, for the 180,000 candle-carrying demonstrators in Victoria Park on Wednesday night, such brutality holds no sway.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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