While Beijing Stays Silent, Hong Kong Remembers Tiananmen

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty

A woman holds a candle during a vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 4, 2009, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown

Fredrik Fan Cheung-fung was born in Hong Kong in 1989. He did not witness the events of that restless summer; he never saw hunger strikes or tanks in the streets. But, he says, he inherited the legacy of the attack on student protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead. Twenty years after the crackdown, just shy of his 20th birthday, Fan embarked on a 64-hour fast of his own, setting up camp outside a busy shopping center in Hong Kong's Times Square, some 1,240 miles (2,000 km) from Beijing. As he stood in his small, blue booth flanked by fellow students, a gigantic television screen — not a portrait of Chairman Mao — watched over him. But as Fan greeted the commuters and shopkeepers who passed by, he glowed with the same nervous energy, the same youthful optimism, of those who came before. His goal: "To keep their memory alive."

Today, Fan joined a 100,000-strong crowd for the city's annual act of remembrance, the June 4 vigil in Victoria Park. Sitting in orderly rows and lit by the surrounding skyscrapers, people clutched small, white candles and cheered and clapped their way through a program filled with speeches and song. Families sat on blankets, their snacks laid out on paper plates. Old men stood, chatting, occasionally raising their fists in the air. In the middle of it all stood a miniature replica of a familiar statue, the Goddess of Democracy, which Chinese art students had built — and soldiers later toppled — in Beijing 20 years before. Beneath Hong Kong's Goddess lay flowers to commemorate Tiananmen's dead. (See pictures of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.)

Remembering Tiananmen Square is a task Hong Kong people take seriously. This is the only Chinese city where the incident is openly discussed and publicly remembered. In the summer of 1989, some 1 million people took to the city's streets in support of the students. They've honored them every year since. But remembrance is an amorphous term, especially here. The solemnity of recollection is tempered by anger and fear — anger that China has not acknowledged the incident, and fear that heavy-handed suppression is not a thing of the past. "What happened 20 years ago could happen again," said Zoe Yiu, a 20-year-old student attending the vigil for the second time. "And now we worry that it could happen here too."

The 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre comes at a time when Hong Kong's own democracy movement feels threatened. Twelve years after its return to China, the city operates semiautonomously, enjoying a range of rights, but beholden, ultimately, to Beijing. Under a policy called "one country, two systems," residents elect half of their legislators, but Beijing appoints the territory's chief executive. (Read: "China Cracks Down Ahead of Tiananmen Anniversary.")

It is a delicate balance, one that pro-democracy advocates worry is tipping toward Beijing. Last year the Chinese government postponed direct elections in the territory, bumping the date from 2012 to 2017 for the chief executive and to 2020 for the legislature. The move outraged veteran campaigners like Martin Lee, Hong Kong's "Father of Democracy." Lee, recently the target of a foiled assassination plot, says Beijing is buying time, stacking the democratic deck. "They have postponed and postponed," he says. "Hong Kong will not have democracy until Beijing knows they have people who can win."

His is a fear shared by many here. Pro-democracy groups see Beijing's not-so-invisible hand tightening its grip on the city. In the run-up to the anniversary, two Tiananmen-era dissidents, Xiang Xiaoji and Yang Jianli, were turned away at Hong Kong's airport. The city won't comment, but it denied charges that it kept an immigration blacklist at the behest of Beijing. The incident sparked outrage nonetheless, with critics accusing Hong Kong officials of kowtowing to mainland authorities ahead of the politically sensitive anniversary. (See pictures of Hong Kong.)

Many, including prominent Hong Kong legislator Emily Lau, worry that Beijing is stifling Hong Kong's notoriously raucous press. She points to a new report by Freedom House, an American NGO that tracks freedom-of-the-press issues, which labeled Hong Kong's press corps "free" in 2008, but downgraded it to "partly free" in 2009. The problem, Lau says, is not outright repression but self-censorship. "People are getting too scared to speak up."

But speak up they do — as pro-Beijing commentators are quick to point out. "Where is the threat?" asks Lau Nai-keung, a Hong Kong journalist with ties to Beijing. "People here can express their feelings." Indeed, when the city's chief executive, Donald Tsang, recently downplayed the anniversary to legislators during a legislative council debate, he was met with fierce opposition and forced to apologize. When Ayo Chan, a student leader at Hong Kong University, suggested pro-democracy protesters were to blame for the 1989 crackdown, angry students moved to vote him out of office. And, unlike the uprising in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, Fan's Times Square protest unfolded peacefully, unfettered by the government. Hong Kong people remember Tiananmen, and they cherish the fight it has come to represent. Tens of thousands said so at Victoria Park today. They just wonder if Beijing will hear.

Read: "China Cracks Down Ahead of Tiananmen Anniversary."

See pictures of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.