Hong Kong and the Legacy of June Fourth

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang recently learned the hard way that economic happiness and stability cannot erase a people’s historical memory entirely. According to Learning Cantonese, a recent question and answer section he participated in went something like this:

Margaret Ng (a HK legislator): “On the 20th anniversary of the 1989 incident, many Hong Kong people are concerned about an issue of the most extreme importance…We would like to know, Mr. Chief Executive, do you, or do you not support the vindication of the June 4th (Tiananmen Square) incident?”

Donald Tsang: “This is something that happened a long time ago. The national economy has grown and brought prosperity to Hong Kong….the Hong Kong people have made their own judgements.”

Margaret Ng: “Am I understanding the Chief Executive’s meaning? Do you mean to say that as long as the economy is prospering that we should not care about people who were killed? That we should bury our conscience for economic benefits?”

Donald Tsang: “My view represents the opinion of Hong Kong people in general.”

Except, of course, it doesn’t. People in the public and official seating during the Q&A began shouting at Tsang, and many walked out. In the aftermath, his halfhearted apology failed to stop a flurry of denunciations and proclamations that “Donald Tsang Does Not Represent Me!” In fact, the anti-Tsang movement — OK, calling it that may be a tad but hyperbolic — even has its own facebook group and youtube music video (“Donald Tsang, Please Die”).

In a piece about the controversy today, Alice Poon expresses her own disapproval with Tsang, writing, “Contrary to what Tsang believes, when it comes to a matter of conscience, many Hong Kongers are still disgusted with what happened 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square, and by extension, with people responsible for trampling on lives of fellow countrymen at will, and with their supporters.”

So historical memory is alive and well in Hong Kong. In his own stupid way, Tsang has probably helped get a lot of people thinking about the upcoming twentieth anniversary of June Fourth. Yet the incident also serves as yet another indicator of the vast gulf that remains between Hong Kong and the Mainland, where there seems to be little discussion of the incident and where censorship (and probably security) are ramping up. In all likelihood, June Fourth will pass without incident on the Mainland, while candlelight vigils dot Hong Kong and Taiwan, then fade on the morning of the fifth as people return to their lives.

The best hope for changing our understanding of June Fourth this year comes from the much talked-about memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, which have recently surfaced. Those with Chinese language skills may be excited to hear some of the original tapes as hosted by the New York Times (who also provides translations for some of it). There are also some excerpts in the Telegraph.

If, like Alice Poon, you’re waiting for a chance to read the book, you could fill your spare time reading the less current but still enlightening Tiananmen Papers, a collection of internal government documents and other things chronicling the government’s response from the outbreak of protest to the ultimate, brutal crackdown. The excellent documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace is also worth watching; even more worth checking out is the supplemental site and its additional readings.

0 thoughts on “Hong Kong and the Legacy of June Fourth”

  1. I have a close American friend who was working for the US Embassy in Beijing at that time. He was in charge of driving expats in different parts of beijing back to a safe place and then sending them back to the US.

    His accounts of what happened those days were very different from what one usually sees in the media (HK, TW or western).

    It was the scariest time in his life, but surprisingly (even for me) not by witnessing the atrocities by the tanks, but by the student protesters, or rioters in his words.

    I trust that friend way more than I do the media, and no, he isn’t what you call a China-lover or commie apologist. So whenever I see reports that stress on what the soldiers did but whitewash/ignore the violence by the student side I just turn away.


  2. @ Woodoo,

    Social movements are messy. Things get out of hand. But that’s not the end of the story.

    Chas Freeman, who recently resigned as nominee for Obama’s security brain trust, famously said in regards to Tiananmen that the U.S. did the same thing back when Eisenhower clamped down on protesting vets in Washington, DC.

    Well, is that all there is to say? Do we just talk about what governments tend to do when things get out of hand and they don’t want to negotiate or do we talk about how things got out of hand, what the grievances of the students or vets were, why the governments wouldn’t negotiate, etc?

    Simply saying things escalated into a riot doesn’t seem to solve much.


  3. You misunderstood what I meant. If there is a news report that objectively lists the atrocities done by both sides, I’d be happy to read it. But 99.999999999999% of the western reports or books on TAM focus only on the government. One-sided stories abhor me. It’s that simple.


  4. @ Vooddoo
    Please don’t forget which side initiated the violence, and which side was the heavily armed. I would think it’s only natural human response to either escape the scene or fight back when attacked. Should we not judge on who uses violence first against a peaceful assembly? However wrong the students may have been, they didn’t deserve a death sentence from the country’s leaders. There is absolutely no excuse for the perpetrators of the massacre. It was tragic that the leaders hadn’t learned their lesson from the Cultural Revolution – violent suppression only breeds more hatred.


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