I am sad to say that I have lived in Hong Kong for over a decade and never been to the annual June 4 rally to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. I rectified that this year.
The march is the only place in China where this tragedy can be publicly remembered (Taiwan, which China claims as part of it, also commemorates June 4, but well). In this sense, the march is #soHongKong. It is Hong Kong as China but not China, Hong Kong as the rebellious part of China where rebellion is tolerated, the part of China that many people risked their lives swimming to escape an oppressive way of life and who have a deep suspicion of the government in Beijing.
The march is Hong Kong at its finest. It is super crowded – organisers estimate there were 180,000 people in Victoria Park last night, the police say 37,000, there were definitely tens of thousands. The road leading up to the park was flanked by pro-democratic political parties campaigning and fundraising (however, the people seeking funds were not aggressive, just grateful if you gave something). It was packed like a Mumbai local on that road. Yet, I felt in no danger.
It got less packed as one reached the park, but it was still crowded. Nevertheless, the sense of discipline and calm was amazing. Everyone picked a spot and sat quietly. People were supportive and accommodating, none of the usual grumpiness. It had rained the entire day and the ground was wet in patches. That didn’t deter people from coming out.
There were young people, but what surprised me was how old some people were. There were people so old it was incredible they were standing for so long. The man next to me said he had attended every year for the past 29 years, missing only one protest the year his son was born.
There were screens set up here and there, but one couldn’t see much. All the speeches were in Cantonese. My friend translated some, but not all, of it for me – there was a eulogy for the fallen students and a testimony from a Hong Kong woman who had been one of the student protesters. There were different performances of songs that had become anthems to the cause and which sounded vaguely familiar to me. At intervals there were slogans shouted – “never forget”, “down with the one-party dictatorship” “democracy for China” – and the park resounded with the cries. Even though I couldn’t understand most of it, I was moved.
At some point, we all lit our candles, there was a moment of silence for the fallen students and then we bowed several times in tribute.
I had hesitated to join the march in previous years basically because I didn’t know what to do and didn’t have anyone to go with. What I realised is that while it is nice to go with someone, it’s not really necessary. You just follow the crowd, sit there and absorb the atmosphere.
Protests are a numbers game. Sometimes standing up for what you believe is as easy as putting your body in a place where it is visible.
There will be a march on the afternoon of June 9, starting at Victoria Park at 2.30 pm, to protest against the Hong Kong government’s plans to change the extradition laws to allow transfer of fugitives to mainland China (something that has not been allowed so far, because of the lack of trust in the rule of law there). If you’re in Hong Kong, you could consider going.
Here’s a video by the South China Morning Post on the Tiananmen Square crackdown.