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The 18th anniversary of anything is not one that usually draws crowds – even for an event as momentous as the massacre that followed the Tiananmen square protests in Beijing on June 4, 1989.
But this year, the Hong Kong organisers of an annual Tiananmen vigil, the only public memorial to the event held within the People’s Republic of China, have received a fillip from an unlikely person – the head of a pro-Beijing political party.
Last month Ma Lik, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), provoked a furore when he said that the events of June 4 did not constitute a massacre and crudely questioned whether tanks had, in fact, run over people and turned them into “mince”.
The backlash was immediate and dramatically illustrated the dilemma that Tiananmen continues to pose for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp.
Just as some pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong have alienated potential supporters with their perceived intransigence towards the Chinese government, blatant pandering towards Beijing does not go down well either – especially on a subject as emotive as Tiananmen. As the Beijing student movement reached its crest in May 1989, more than 1m residents of Hong Kong took to the streets in a demonstration of solidarity with the students.
The day after Mr Ma’s comments, newspapers paired his remarks and pictures of the DAB chairman with graphic photos of the carnage 18 years ago. His fellow-travellers in the pro-Beijing camp were shamed into silence and declined to weigh into the controversy either for or against. Democrats in the territory, meanwhile, are hoping the controversy over Mr Ma’s denial will increase turnout at tonight’s candlelight vigil.
Ivan Choi, a lecturer in politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says: “There are some in the DAB who have a more sympathetic view of June 4 and some will follow the [Chinese Communist] party line but I think even more [DAB members] do not have strong feelings one way or another. The main thing is that this issue is a hot potato and touching it will be a lose-lose proposition for the DAB.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians have a much higher international profile than their pro-Beijing peers. Western governments and media are sympathetic to their pursuit of direct elections to choose the territory’s chief executive, who is selected by a rubber-stamp “election committee”. Their leadership ranks are also populated with articulate, English-speaking lawyers and professionals.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing political parties, led by the DAB, are better at grass roots political organisation, however. The DAB is by far the territory’s largest party with upwards of 10,000 members. And its leaders are drawn from the entire social spectrum, from teachers to rich businessmen. Tsang Yok-sing, DAB vice-chairman and Hong Kong’s most influential pro-Beijing politician, was a teacher and principal at a pro-Beijing secondary school before entering the territory’s legislature.
Many were deeply opposed to British colonial rule, which they took as both a personal and cultural insult. One lawyer and DAB member, who asked not to be named because, in part, he works for a western company, remembers bristling at references to the “colony of Hong Kong” embedded in its legislative statutes.
“Why couldn’t they just call it Hong Kong,” he asks, adding that he also could not bring himself to bow to overseas judges as he entered their courtrooms.
This deeply held sentiment finally found expression in 1967, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, when communist-inspired riots rocked Hong Kong. Leftist student circles attracted the likes of Antony Leung, a former financial secretary.
But while Hong Kong’s leftists were swept up in the euphoria of the Cultural Revolution’s early years, they also did not have to experience its bitterness as the movement turned to tragedy and farce in China.
Mr Leung, who grew up in a public housing estate, becam a Citibank trader and is today Greater China chairman for Blackstone, the private equity giant.
Tiananmen was instead their Cultural Revolution – a moment of profound disillusionment epitomised, says Mr Choi, by Mr Tsang of the DAB’s tears at a school prayer meeting held after the massacre.
But Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp has never been able to articulate its angst. Maintaining good relations with Beijing requires that its members either bite their tongues – thereby succumbing to the collective amnesia that continues to surround the most important event in China of the past quarter century – or like Mr Ma embrace a white-washed version of Tiananmen.