On June 4, Hong Kong was, once again, the only city in China where Chinese openly celebrated and mourned the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising and killings. On the same day, in Beijing, Premier Zhu Rongji insulted China’s democratic movement. He had recently returned from Washington, where he fruitlessly attempted to persuade President Clinton to admit China to the World Trade Organization. Asked by foreign reporters for his thoughts on the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen, Mr. Zhu said, “Thank you for reminding me. I had forgotten.”
Of course he was joking. Zhu had been mayor of Shanghai during the 1989 demonstrations there, and while his immediate response had been relatively mild, he later oversaw that city’s vengeful qingcha, or “ferreting out,” which swept over China with arrests, torture, and executions. Zhu knew, moreover, that Tiananmen Square had been enclosed for weeks by a high blue fence to prevent any anniversary outbursts and that almost one hundred dissidents had been detained throughout China. The families of some of those killed in 1989 were petitioning to have the judgment on the uprising of “counterrevolution” reversed and were holding secret memorial meetings at home. The only two demonstrators who got into the square had been instantly arrested by the police. Ex-Party boss Zhao Ziyang, charged with encouraging the students in 1989, remains under house arrest.
In Beijing on June 4, therefore, Zhu’s joke was not so funny. Immediately broadcast in Hong Kong, his words were repeated angrily at the huge candlelight vigil that jammed the city’s biggest park that night. During the days leading up to the vigil almost all the newspapers, many of which are usually careful how they treat China, carried supplements sympathetic to the demonstrators of ten years before, including the recollections of those who in 1989 joined the million people who marched through Hong Kong’s streets in support of the students. Ten years later, and in a population often characterized as pragmatic or little interested in the past, nearly 50 percent of those polled in the first week of June said they still condemned the crackdown and believed the official verdict of “counterrevolution” should be reversed. Most of the rest said they had “no opinion,” which in Hong Kong often means an opinion that respondents do not wish to reveal.
What is absent in Hong Kong, and what I have never heard mentioned there since 1989, is any awareness of the disputes in the United States about the tactics and strategy of the students in the square or of the fissures within the dissident community, over either their behavior long ago or how they should oppose the Chinese government today. In Hong Kong, Tiananmen has a wholly emotional meaning which evokes strong responses, rather like the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last month. On that occasion some of Hong Kong’s leading democrats, such as Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic Party, demonstrated outside the US Consulate …