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.1 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.2 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 General, where words like “atrocity,” used by the same people about Tiananmen, could be heard.

Normally, when people in Hong Kong are asked to identify themselves, most say, “I am a Hong Kong person.” Only 20 percent say, “I am Chinese.” But 40 percent of those planning to attend the vigil identified themselves to pollsters as “Chinese.” They were making it clear, as dissidents have in China since students in 1919 condemned the authorities for allowing foreigners to dismember the country, that contending with the government is a patriot’s duty. There is a long Chinese tradition of doing so; officials who remonstrated with the emperor in open court and suffered for it have always been honored.

Every year in Hong Kong the build-up to June 4 is organized by the Democratic Alliance, a loose federation of members of the Democratic Party, the city’s most popular, and by non-Communist trade unions and other professional groups. Its leading figure is Szeto Wah, an elderly former school teacher and member of the sixty-seat Legislative Council, where his constant criticism of his opponents, whether in the council or the civil service, is often couched in the form of allegories drawn from Chinese folk tales and is much appreciated for its sardonic wit. A few days before the June 4 candle-light vigil, Mr. Szeto told 4,000 people who had marched through Hong Kong, “If no one speaks about Tiananmen here in Hong Kong, there will be total silence all over China.” The next day his words were splashed in large type across the front page of Apple Daily, the city’s second-biggest newspaper, which combines sensational articles about sex and celebrities with serious political observation, much of it anti-Beijing.

Szeto’s insistence on speaking out had special meaning in Hong Kong. Across the border, praising the Tiananmen demonstrators is still regarded as criminal. The most famous mainland person who dares to speak publicly is a Beijing professor, Ding Zilin, whose son was killed the night of the Tiananmen crackdown. While under constant surveillance, she and her husband have painstakingly collected the names of 160 people who were killed and 70 others who were wounded, and have gotten in touch with their families. Although there were six policemen outside her flat through May and early June, Ding managed to issue a statement: “We are not allowed to speak openly about the facts of how our loved ones were murdered and we cannot mourn our dead in public…. We cannot even say a simple ‘Rest in peace’ to their buried souls.” Her words were carried in the Hong Kong press.


Hong Kong people knew, too, that their own government would prefer them to ignore the Tiananmen anniversary. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa suggested last year that June 4 was “baggage” that should be discarded. While he has never forbidden marches and demonstrations, he makes it clear that he regards them as damaging to the “Hong Kong family.” This year he said nothing. Mr. Tung is trying to pass a subversion law which may make future June 4 demonstrations more difficult to hold, and he has also managed to render the Legislative Council even more impotent than it was in colonial times. He is entreating Beijing to overturn a High Court decision on immigration from China; if it does so, it will undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law. But Mr. Tung, I was told, had been warned by high officials, both in Hong Kong and Beijing, that he would reap an international whirlwind if his government interfered in the marches and vigils planned for June 4. As long as Hong Kong’s Democratic Alliance does not appear to directly subvert the mainland, Beijing looks the other way.

Like Mr. Tung, most of the Hong Kong rich are opposed to any spread of democracy, which they regard as being anti-China and hence destabilizing. Some more democratically inclined civil servants told me, always anonymously, that the men around Mr. Tung, like the Chief Executive himself, often do what they surmise is Beijing’s bidding before anything has been said from the north—the “preemptive cringe,” as they call it. Tung and his high officials, who are in constant contact with China, either through its representatives in Hong Kong or its officials across the border, despised Chris Patten for his encouragement of what he called “a modest degree of democracy.” They were encouraged by senior British Foreign Office officials, serving and retired, for whom getting on with China was—and remains—a supreme goal of foreign policy.

Hong Kong people usually keep their opinions of the mainland private. But since the great emotional outpouring in 1989 their political preferences have been clear. In the pre-Patten days they overcame British obstacles to free elections to the Legislative Council, always preferring democrats even though the election laws limited the number of seats they could hold. It was Patten’s contribution—he always maintained that Tiananmen had changed Hong Kong’s political climate—to extend the franchise and the number of directly elected seats in the Council. In the 1998 elections, the first after the handover, almost 60 percent of the electorate turned out despite a howling typhoon. Such a big majority voted for the Democrats and their allies that if Hong Kong were a true democracy, Martin Lee, the well-to-do lawyer who heads the party, would be Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. But the Beijing-appointed government of Tung Chee-hwa had already installed election laws ensuring that fewer than a third of the Council’s sixty seats would go to the Democrats. It is equally characteristic of Hong Kong’s citizens that, knowing it was a lost cause, they went to the polls. The same combination of fatalism and idealism brought them to Victoria Park on the night of June 4.

A young Hong Kong journalist and I asked several dozen people what their feelings were about marking the June 4 anniversary. In 1989, Martin Lee had abandoned his lawyer’s suit for a tee-shirt and a white headband, the color of mourning. Just before this year’s vigil, he told me, “In Beijing they said that those who supported the students were traitors. That meant that Szeto Wah and I, as the leaders, and the million who marched, were criminals. This still hangs over our heads and explains why I am banned from traveling in China, although I’m a Chinese. We are accused of a crime we didn’t commit. This verdict must be reversed. I agree with Szeto: if we don’t speak out all China will be silent. And if we don’t speak how can we ever face all those people in China?”

Han Dongfang, a railway worker, was the leader of the officially banned “Free Trade Unions” in China in 1989. In May he and his followers erected tents in the north corner of Tiananmen Square. This linking of industrial workers and the intellectual elite alarmed Deng Xiaoping. On the night of June 3-4 I saw the first tanks rolling into Tiananmen veer sharply right and crush the tents, which were empty. Imprisoned after June 4, Han was eventually freed to fly to Boston for treatment for the TB which still afflicts him. When he attempted to reenter China he was expelled across the border to Hong Kong. Just before June 4 this year he told me, “If there had been no Tiananmen there would be no social movement in Hong Kong today, no democrats, no Patten reforms. We would be like Macao, quiet, no trouble, waiting for the handover.” (The Portuguese possession reverts to China this year.)


Later I heard Han tell an audience, “If we Chinese forget our history it will be our national shame, our hopelessness. It’s a sick society where people are angry but can’t speak, can’t release their anger except in worker and peasant riots or when they shout out because of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.”

Szeto Wah told me that because Hong Kong is the only part of China where Chinese can openly commemorate the Tiananmen massacres and demand redress, they have to do so, or Beijing will contemptuously break its agreement that there could be “one country, two systems.” He said, too, that “many mainlanders visit here. They see our activities, they know more of the truth about Tiananmen, a truth that Hong Kong must bring to all of China.”

Some people we stopped in the street disagreed. They said, “I have no special feeling about Tiananmen,” “I have no time, and anyway, we can’t do anything,” or “It’s so long ago and my teachers said it was no longer important.” The leading Hong Kong businessmen lay low during the anniversary. On the whole, their aim is to get richer by making themselves useful to China by providing investments and financial services for their counterparts in Guangzhou and Shanghai, not least to children of the top leaders, some of whom have become multimillionaires.

During the last year many of the Hong Kong tycoons have run into trouble. The Asian economic crisis hit them hard, although not for the same reasons so obvious elsewhere in the region. Hong Kong was not a corrupt place; its government was not tied to unscrupulous business conglomerates, nor was investment there reckless. Hong Kong’s misfortune was to be caught in the midst of a regional banking and investment collapse that affected local and expatriate businessmen. Some of them with investments on the mainland have been heavily damaged by the virtual bankruptcy of the major state banks and of the mainland businesses that collapsed, in which they had interests, where investors have little protection under Chinese law. The Hong Kong rich have been afflicted also by a 50 percent drop in values of real estate, which is their principal source of wealth. As a result of these downturns, Hong Kong’s unemployment rate, normally about 2 percent, has risen to 6 percent, the highest in almost thirty years. Since Hong Kong is not a manufacturing center, its recovery, unlike that of other economies in the region, may be relatively slow because its troubles are mainly caused by economic failures elsewhere.

But many people intended not to let June 4 go unmarked. A civil servant, age thirty, said, “I’m going to the vigil. We have to learn from History.” He was angry that the government—as in Mr. Patten’s time—had refused visas to the dissidents Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng. “They should come, even if it makes Beijing angry.” A housewife of forty said, “I’m going with my children. They should know they have brothers and sisters who died to improve the motherland.”

The vigil itself was an extraordinary scene. Victoria Park is made up of hundreds of yards of concrete playing fields surrounded by skyscrapers topped with flashing advertisements. So polluted is Hong Kong’s night sky that a child can grow up and never see a star. On the night of June 4 the entire space was filled with orderly rows of people sitting on the ground, each holding small shaded candles that sparkled and flashed. In the middle of the throng there were two statues, one, a quarter-size replica of the Goddess of Democracy—essentially the Statue of Liberty—which had been erected in Tiananmen just before the killings and was smashed by tanks; the other was a quarter-size copy of the Martyr’s Memorial, a permanent fixture in Tiananmen Square, around which the students had their headquarters in 1989 and where on the night of June 4 they waited for the troops to reach them.

A vast screen, flanked by earsplitting loudspeakers, was set behind a stage stretching across one end of the park. On such a screen, on June 4 of every year including this one, video clips are shown of the most heroic and violent scenes from the last hours of Tiananmen, including wounded or dead people with bloodstained clothes being rushed out of the square on tricycles. Every year the people with the candles hear once again at full volume the cracking of the soldiers’ rifles and the grinding and clanking of the tanks, all against a background of the demonstrators’ screams.

The crowd sang many songs, most of them composed in 1989 for the Hong Kong demonstrations, others famously sung in Tiananmen. This year, as before, Szeto Wah gave a long speech in the deliberate measured tones of an orator practiced at addressing multitudes. His appeals never to forget, to have patience but to struggle, were punctuated with unison shouts of “Hao“—“Good”—from the crowd. Most of the time the crowd was silent, attentive, and often weeping. “Do you hear our cries?” intoned Szeto, addressing the dead of 1989. “May your heroic souls descend here—the only place on Chinese soil where we can meet in public to remember you. The next ten years of fortitude and struggle now begin. We know a democratic China will not come down from heaven. We have to make it with blood and sweat and bravery. We have to get the next generation ready to continue this struggle.”

The most dramatic and unexpected moment came with the introduction to the audience of Wang Lingyun, mother of Wang Dan, one of the leaders of Tiananmen, who is now at Harvard. She suddenly addressed the stunned listeners from a phone in Beijing. Her usually quiet voice rang from the loudspeakers. This was no easy task, she explained. On the mainland, phone after phone had been cut off.

The younger generation should have a historical commitment and social responsibility. They should concentrate on democracy, freedom, and learning…. Their greatest desire is to be able to speak when they want.

Szeto was in his element as host and impresario. “Speak to us,” he urged Wang Lingyun. “Tell us what we should hear, you, the good mother of a good son.”

Then Wang Dan himself came on a separate line from Boston and, through the booming speakers, mother and son spoke to each other. When Wang said that “it was the blood and sacrifice of the Tiananmen dead that would lead us to democracy,” Mrs. Wang said she barely knew how to respond. If there was a path to democracy, the obstacles to it were made clear by this exchange. She had to struggle to make a call that would not be cut off by the police; he could ring up from Boston. His youthful high voice was clear, and sounded no different from the one we had heard in Tiananmen and, before that, at the student “salons” that introduced the democracy movement on the Beijing university campus when he was a student there.

It is hard to estimate the importance of all this. In China, in the spring of 1989, there were almost one hundred protests resembling the one in Tiananmen Square, from Manchuria south to Canton and as far west as Inner Mongolia. Those directly affected by the ensuing “ferreting out,” along with their families and friends, must number in the millions.3 Similarly, in Hong Kong, with a population of 6.2 million, for every one of the 70,000 who sat in Victoria Park there must have been several who wanted to be there or were glad others were. My taxi driver on the way home told me he had marched in 1989 but since then he hadn’t been able to take out time from work. Still, he said, “we are all of one family tonight.”

But can Hong Kong maintain that feeling, sustain its relatively free press, burn its candles and erect the Goddess of Democracy, and have an effect within China itself as well? Many say that China is changing fast and that as capitalism develops political reform will follow. My own impression is that what is emerging in China is far from capitalism; it is a scramble for money, gained by almost any means, with corruption endemic in the highest places. It is often said that any Chinese cab driver will tell you what bastards and crooks the leaders are and that much the same is said in coffee bars and night clubs. But just as China’s economy is not capitalism, resentful talk in the streets is not democracy. The government takes care to prevent anything resembling united political opposition and locks up those who attempt to form it—as with the recent arrests of the activists who merely tried to legally register the existence of the independent Democracy Party. (On May 27, a member of that party was sentenced to four years in prison for circulating pamphlets calling for the government to reassess its suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrators. He was charged with “subverting state power.”) Citizens who might organize others and are not imprisoned are likely to be detained and questioned.

Hong Kong is now just as much a scene of confrontation between two Chinas as Taiwan. The Hong Kong citizens who vote for Democrats and the holders of vigils are on one side; the officials and business people who support Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa are on the other. Mr. Tung cannot crush the evident desire for democratic rights and support for the Tiananmen protesters unless he is willing to use the threat of violence and to deploy a network of security police.

So far he has refrained from either measure. Once a millionaire shipbuilder who was rescued from bankruptcy by loans from the Bank of China, he was selected by Beijing to run Hong Kong after the handover; Mr. Tung tries to anticipate instructions from the North, and he cannot ignore the shifting political developments there. Some of the Hong Kong political observers who visit the mainland told me that elements of the army feel shame for what they did on June 4 and in the days that followed, when they sprayed the streets of Beijing with their AK-47s. That shame could turn to action as it did in 1911, when units of the army suddenly turned against the emperor, overthrew Manchu rule, and helped begin China’s long—and very slow—march to democracy.

Perhaps the most impressive statement I heard in April was smuggled out from China and much quoted on June 4. On March 25, Bao Tong, ex- Central Committee member, secretary to ex-Party boss Zhao Ziyang, and survivor of seven years in prison, wrote to the Politburo, “The events of June 4, 1989 are shameful to humanity…. Letting stand the wrongful assessment of the events means the continuation of severe pain for the Chinese people.”

More important, he reminded his ex-colleagues, “You and I, all of us, participated in demonstrations in the 1940s against dictatorship and in favor of democracy. The demands made by the students in 1989 and the demands we made come from the same shared legacy; their words and actions were as civilised and self-controlled as ours.” People all over China know this, Bao Tong wrote. “The history of bloodshed remains in people’s hearts; they will not forget.” Bao reminded the Politburo members they can change their assessment of Tiananmen—and by implication of many other things—“through good judgement or by force.” They can lead or be swept out of the way. He could have added—but it would have been seen as the ultimate provocation—that in Taiwan one of Chiang Kai-shek’s sons encouraged the peaceful emergence of a democracy that now is strongly established.

A few years ago, while a correspondent in Hong Kong, I heard that Deng Xiaoping’s advice for Hong Kong after the 1997 handover was “Keep on horse-racing, keep on dancing.” I was certain then that this disdainful statement sounded the death knell for the colony’s considerable liberty, and wrote that Beijing’s “defining words, ‘friendship,’ ‘patriotic,’ ‘love China,’ and ‘enemy,’ together with its concept of law as an instrument of state power, have paralysed [Hong Kong’s] sense and numbed sensibility.”4 I was wrong. Hong Kong still votes for democracy every chance it gets, either at the ballot box or in marches and vigils. This is especially remarkable in a materialistic people enduring an unprecedented Asian financial crisis, from which Hong Kong may be one of the last cities to emerge.

At the moment Beijing still perceives Hong Kong as a triumph of peaceful assertion of control and a source of economic expertise, while Taiwan has made a peaceful transition to economic success and democracy that alarms, puzzles, and intrigues the mainland. But the Taiwanese depend for their de facto independence on a formidable army and on the one-hundred-mile-wide Taiwan Straits separating them from the mainland. The Hong Kong citizens, in their less strident manifestations in favor of the rule of law and freedom of the press, together with their insistence that patriotism does not equal subservience, have nothing more than their convictions and feelings of solidarity. How long can they hold out?

For 150 years the Chinese wondered how they failed to become “rich and powerful” while the West prospered; their sense of humiliation and their bitter anger at their failure have continued ever since. Those emotions lay behind the uproar in Chinese cities after the bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade. Only a hundred miles across the Taiwan Straits and over the border in Hong Kong, fellow Chinese have realized what has held China back: the absence of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. There must even be those in the Beijing leadership who see in the democratically minded Chinese communities on their doorstep an opportunity, not a threat.

June 16, 1999

This Issue

July 15, 1999