Hong Kong Dissidents Get Organized As Tiananmen Anniversary Draws Near

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Xinhua via Kyodo / AP

Dressed in a People's Liberation Army uniform, Deng Xiaoping, left, and Hu Yaobang, right, salute as they review a military parade in Sept. 1981

For the past 19 years on June 4, large crowds have gathered for candlelight vigils at Hong Kong's Victoria Park to remember the hundreds who died that day in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. This year, which brings the loaded 20th anniversary of the student political movement that began on April 15 and ended in June 1989, activists here are already busy holding discussion panels and meetings across the city. Hong Kong, with its unique political and legal traditions, is the only city under China's rule that permits activities observing the 1989 democracy movement, and has become a hub for activists and dissidents to foster and maintain an active Chinese political scene.

So it is not surprising, then, that after 12 prominent members of the Chinese Communist Party put together a book of essays to commemorate the legacy of the reform-minded Chinese leader Hu Yaobang — whose death of a heart attack 20 years ago this week triggered the student movement in Beijing — they, too, published their work here in Hong Kong. "Isn't it an irony that the party members have to run here, a capitalist city, to publish their thoughts?" Meng Lang, the new book's Hong Kong publisher, asked with a smile. "I have lots of freedom here in Hong Kong. If it can be kept, it can be developed and exported to the mainland." (Read TIME's cover story about life in 1989 China after the crackdown.)

The book, Hu Yaobang and Chinese Political Reform: the Recollections of 12 Old Communist Members, pulls together 12 essays written by some of the most prominent names in today's Chinese political arena. Contributors include Li Rui, who once served as Mao Zedong's secretary, and Hu Jiwei, the former editor of the People's Daily, China's primary state-run newspaper. The writers, introduced in the forward as Hu's old comrades and subordinates, not only reflect on the former leader's efforts in pursuing greater political openness and a more practical policy toward Tibet, they aim to turn his story into a permanent reminder for the Chinese people that future political reforms will require persistence and vigilance. Though gone for 20 years, Hu maintains a complicated reputation on the mainland. "Hu is still in a kind of limbo or political purgatory," Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China scholar at the University of Hong Kong, said this week in an interview published in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. "He is not totally taboo and people can speak about him but at the same time his status remains ambiguous."

That China has already banned the book should come as a surprise to no one. Despite being written by party insiders, some of the essays are critical of Beijing's current policies and of the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, still greatly admired on the mainland for ushering in the economic reforms that led to China's rapid growth over the past 30 years. One essay plays down Deng's role as a reformer and insists that Deng — who forced Hu Yaobang from power in 1987 for his sympathetic handling of democracy advocates' protests in December of 1986 — was nothing more than a political conservative who monopolized power and treated the National People's Congress as a rubber stamp body. Just as Hu started his social reforms by coming to terms with all the injustices and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution, Hu Jiwei writes that today's leaders in Beijing need to rectify a host of wrongs that Deng committed — namely, the lack of progress on political reforms.

For a country that is still struggling with Mao Zedong's legacy — where the official line quantitatively insists that Mao was 70% right and only 30% wrong — Hu Jiwei's views on Deng will no doubt be a hard one to accept. Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based writer who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for almost three years for espionage, put this in rather blunt terms at the book event. "[China does] not dare to face its history," he says.

Hu symbolizes a moment when many Chinese felt a burst of relative political freedom and openness, which partly explains their fondness for the former Party leader. During his tenure from 1980 to 1987, Hu went ahead to rehabilitate the victims branded as ideological traitors during the Cultural Revolution. He admitted mistakes in China's policies on Tibet. His overall liberal outlook, at least more so than his political contemporaries, fostered an atmosphere that enabled new ideas and thinking to emerge. During that time, it was not uncommon for Chinese students to, for the first time, read about western political treatises, thoughts on democracy, liberal governance, judicial independence, the free press, checks and balances of government, and other ideas. "Every book was out quickly — books that aren't even allowed in China today," said Zhou Qing, who spent almost two years in prison for his participation in the 1989 affairs. It was also a time when a new generation of Chinese activists, to which the likes of Meng and Zhou belonged, came of age.

It was not very long after Hu Yaobang's death on April 15 — two years after Deng removed him from the leadership post — that members of this generation of activists gathered together. The meetings started on April 17, when 700 people went to Tiananmen Square. The next day, 1,500 students demonstrated in front of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, and demanded that Hu's political standing — blemished by his removal from power — be rehabilitated. "By the time Hu's funeral came around, 200,000 students had settled in the large public square, a place that would remain the center of activities until the morning of June 4.

Today, few actually know how to properly bring up Hu Yaobang's legacy in China. Though Chinese President Hu Jintao (no relation to Hu Yaobang) formally rehabilitated Hu four yeas ago by honoring his contributions to China in a series of public events on what would have been his 90th birthday, the matter is still a delicate one. So those who knew him, and those who were inspired by him, have decided to continue Hu's work in Hong Kong. "I know Hong Kong has many problems, like self-censorship," Meng said at a downtown coffee shop a few weeks ago here in the former British colony as he evaluated his political options in China. "Hong Kong also has a reputation for not caring about politics. But it is still a good platform." And so the publisher, who still wears a backpack and has a pony tail, left the interview and ran to the next meeting. Like others in the Hu Yaobang generation, he is determined to charge on until the day when he is allowed to commemorate Hu in a land where things actually took place — the mainland.

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