On 4 June 2020, as darkness enveloped Hong Kong, thousands of people broke through barricades and slipped into the tree-lined Victoria Park in the heart of the city. Shielding their candles from the wind, and carefully sitting 1 metre apart, they filled the length of the open space. The annual Tiananmen Square vigil had been banned, with police citing coronavirus concerns. But Hong Kong was determined to mark the anniversary as it always has. For three decades, the city has been the only place within China where the massacre can be publicly remembered. The commemoration is by far the world’s largest, but also its most vulnerable. Its tiny flames speak to the endurance of hope and memory, and to their looming extinction.
When the People’s Liberation Army massacred hundreds of demonstrators in Beijing on 4 June 1989, the response in Hong Kong was overwhelming. One million or more residents marched in mourning. People from across society – clergymen, activists, Cantopop stars, businesspeople, foreign diplomats, even triad gangs – worked together to smuggle “most wanted” student leaders off the mainland and to safety.
It wasn’t just horror and sympathy that Hong Kongers were feeling in 1989; it was foreboding. The British colony was due to be handed back to China eight years later, and in the days before the killings, as rumours of an impending crackdown spread, local activists had held signs warning “Today China, tomorrow Hong Kong”.
By that point, the Chinese and the British had already made the handover agreement that would come into effect in 1997. Hong Kong would be allowed to maintain its autonomy and way of life for 50 years, until 2047, under the formulation known as “one country, two systems”. It was a fudge, probably the best outcome achievable under the circumstances – a binding international treaty, but one that everyone knew was essentially unenforceable should China break its pledge.
About 500,000 people left between the signing of the deal in 1984 and 1997. Prince Charles, who attended the handover ceremony, wrote after his departure: “Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested.”
Yet at the time of the handover, the fear in Hong Kong was matched by a certain excitement. One supporter of the current protests, Li, who is 71 and came to Hong Kong as a teenager from Guangdong, popped two bottles of champagne to celebrate: “One to say farewell to Britain, and one to welcome the People’s Liberation Army to Hong Kong,” he remembered. As a child, Li had witnessed the mass famine caused by the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but now he felt hopeful. “We expected tomorrow to be better. We’re Chinese people, not just Hong Kongers,” he said.
As the handover passed and life in Hong Kong appeared to be continuing pretty much as promised, sympathy for the mainland grew. China’s years of double-digit growth brought economic rewards to the region and optimists hoped that its ongoing economic liberalisation would, over time, bring political change, too: the mainland might become more like Hong Kong. In 1997, one in five Hong Kongers identified as Chinese; 10 years later, one in three saw themselves that way.
The Tiananmen vigil has always been a barometer of anti-Beijing sentiment; the first, in 1990, attracted 150,000 people, while only 30,000 gathered in 2000. When the activist Bonnie Leung first attended as a student, a few years later, she was seen as “a weirdo”, she said. Every one of the friends she invited refused. But its relative unpopularity did not, to her, diminish its importance. Its very existence showed why Hong Kong was different: “Even when we don’t care, we always know.”
Every so often, Beijing would tighten its grip on Hong Kong, and attendance at the vigil would surge again – as in 2004, after a huge backlash killed off an attempt by the Hong Kong government to pass a national security bill that might have paved the way for peaceful critics of the Chinese Communist party to be jailed. Still, it seemed inevitable that the commemoration would gradually dwindle. Some wondered how long it would be before the vigils died away, and the memory of Tiananmen Square passed with them.
But on 4 June 2019, 30 years after the massacre, 180,000 gathered in Victoria Park. It was the biggest turnout for years. The public had been galvanised by the threat of an extradition bill that would allow suspects to be taken to the mainland to face Communist party-controlled courts. If the bill became law, it seemed to spell the end for Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. Anger had spread well beyond the usual community of activists and intellectuals. Even then, few saw what was brewing. On 9 June, when 1 million people marched to demand that the law be scrapped, the organisers – who included Leung, now in her 30s – were as astonished as anyone. A few days after that, another march drew 2 million people: more than one in four of the population.
In the months that followed, even as the movement grew more radical, support continued to rise. By this spring, 58% of residents backed the protesters. A city once seen as orderly and materialistic has discovered itself to be idealistic and angry. In the past year, police have arrested more than 8,000 protesters, including children as young as 11 and pensioners as old as 83. Demonstrators and police have fought pitched battles outside shopping malls, government offices, police stations and the international airport.
“We don’t have any choice but to fight. We have to try to do something,” said 25-year-old Kelvin Chan, sitting alone near the waterfront of Victoria Harbour as dusk fell. It was a Sunday in early August, nine weeks into the protests. Chan, in a loose black T-shirt and a facemask that barely covered his face, did not look ready to fight, but said he was “waiting for the battle” that would inevitably take place once the police arrived. Protesters nearby made a barricade outside the Intercontinental Hotel as curious guests watched from the stairs. Like many of his generation, Chan believed that soon he would no longer have the chance to attend protests like these. “In the future, 2047 or earlier, I think China will brainwash Hong Kong people. China wants to control Hong Kong,” he said.
That future is arriving more abruptly than anyone anticipated. Late on 21 May, China’s national legislature announced plans to impose an anti-sedition law on Hong Kong, going even further than the bill shelved by the Hong Kong government 17 years ago and the subsequent extradition law. “Hong Kong as we know it is finally dead,” said Claudia Mo, an opposition lawmaker and longtime pro-democracy campaigner. “This is the start of a new but sad chapter for Hong Kong.” The new legislation will give the government the power to silence critics and dissidents through vague charges of subversion, and to install Chinese national security agencies in the city. The nature of the move is as alarming as its content: it sets a precedent of Beijing forcing unpopular legislation on Hong Kong, which under the terms of the handover was promised “a high degree of autonomy”.
Days later, police announced that they were banning the Tiananmen vigil, citing Covid-19 measures. By then, the idea of a candlelit commemoration seemed to belong to another Hong Kong: to the restrained, almost genteel activism that endured for so long. But Tiananmen’s legacy persists, even among young protesters who have grown dismissive of the vigil over the years. When unrest reached its height last autumn, with molotov cocktails arcing over roads and tear gas grenades bouncing off the tarmac, graffiti appeared on a wall in the centre: “Is it our 4 June 1989 now?”
Understanding the protests shaking Hong Kong requires delving back far beyond 1989. Hong Kong as we know it began to take shape in the years after the second world war. In just a decade, the population quadrupled to about 2.5 million, as former residents who had escaped the brutal wartime Japanese occupation returned, and mainland Chinese fled across the border to escape the civil war between the nationalists and communists, and after 1949, the beginning of Communist party rule.
This was an exhausted, impoverished, crowded, hungry city. But it was also dynamic. Its inhabitants had experienced how bad things could get, and were intent on establishing a life for themselves. The new arrivals provided much of the cheap labour that powered the city’s postwar manufacturing boom in the 50s and 60s, with the textile sector soon supplemented by clothing, plastic and electronics factories. This success, along with the city’s heritage of trade and of the rule of law, and from 1978 onwards China’s own economic liberalisation, would later make it a global financial centre.
Until the prospect of the territory’s return to China loomed, during a century and a half of colonial rule, Britain showed little interest in giving Hong Kong’s citizens the power to elect their leaders. But to serve British interests, the administrators had introduced powerful institutions such as an independent judiciary. Thus Hong Kong had what the last governor, Chris Patten, described as “liberty without democracy”, enjoying free speech, free media and the right to protest, without the right to choose who ran the place.
Under this system, protests became a crucial way to challenge British authorities, and later Beijing. In the 60s, major demonstrations, which developed into deadly riots in 1967, were brutally put down by police. But these events also pushed the colonial administration into tackling the needs of the local population: housing, labour rights, education. Aware of Hong Kong’s anachronistic status in a post-colonial world, the British became highly conscious of the need to respond to public demands. Partly in response, protests tended to be targeted in their aims and cautious in means. After the handover, demonstrations would force authorities to abandon plans for a national security law in 2003, and the imposition of “moral and national education” classes in 2012.
For the most part, though, political activity remained a fairly marginal business, and the democratic movement was law-abiding, even sedate. It wasn’t until the excitment of the 2008 Beijing Olympics faded that the mood clearly began to shift. Many protesters remember that year as a turning point in their views on the mainland. Many were shocked by the steady stream of reports on corruption and other abuses in China. They included the embezzling of donations sent by Hong Kongers to victims of the Sichuan earthquake and the Sanlu infant formula scandal, when officials suppressed warnings about tainted milk and 300,000 children fell ill as a result.
Over the next few years, Hong Kongers were outraged by the moral and national education controversy, and protested against the extension of the mainland’s high-speed train line, fearing it was another sign of how the mainland wanted to swallow up Hong Kong. They were also alarmed by Beijing’s increasing authoritarianism and repression – particularly after Xi Jinping took power in 2012 – and the mainland’s growing impact on the city. It began to become evident that the mainland’s economic boom was not making it more like Hong Kong, as some had once thought inevitable. It was making Hong Kong more like the mainland.
Alongside the political anxieties came economic frustrations. Hong Kong is one of the most unequal developed economies in the world. In a city full of designer stores and flashy restaurants, it is impossible to ignore the gap between the rich and the poor. A handful of ultra-rich families prosper while the very poorest dwell in tiny “coffin homes”, less than 2 square metres in size. Even middle-class young people see no hope of moving out of cramped family apartments. Since 1997, about 1 million new residents have arrived from the mainland, without a corresponding increase in public spending, adding to the pressure on services and contributing to soaring property prices.
Over the past decade, Max Chung, an activist from a residential area near the border with China, has seen his neighbourhood transformed by visitors from the mainland who come to Hong Kong on weekend shopping trips. “You can’t even get a table at a restaurant,” he says. “We want to take back our normal lives. We don’t want the Chinese suitcases to roll over our feet. We want to have normal food, not the expensive ones. We really want to take back what we used to have.”
There is undoubted snobbery, and at times outright bigotry, in the way that many in Hong Kong talk about mainlanders – casting them as uncouth, uncultured “locusts” straining services and taking over the town. But Hong Kong has also chafed at what it sees as the arrogance of the mainland: the belief that Mandarin should take precedence over Cantonese, and that Hong Kong should simply adapt to the expectations of new arrivals. “They think: I give you money, so I am the boss. So they can be rude. They can do anything they want,” said Jay, a 21-year-old student – like many activists, he preferred not to give his name.
The hollowness of liberty without democracy has become clear to all. Hong Kong’s 3.8 million voters can choose district councillors to handle matters such as bus routes. But the city’s chief executive is elected by a committee of only 1,200, composed of representatives from business and other groups, as well as elected legislators. The system ensures that the successful candidate is Beijing’s candidate. It has also traditionally given the wealthy a big say in choosing the leader, in a society where a tiny number of tycoon families already have disproportionate power, owning everything from supermarket chains and insurance firms to utility companies and housing.
Beijing has now begun to accuse the same oligarchs it once relied upon of being greedy. It sees the protests, at root, as an economic problem, seized upon by “troublemakers” and hostile foreign powers. But the tradeoff that the party has offered on the mainland – material security in place of political freedoms – does not attract Hong Kongers. People don’t believe they’re getting a decent economic deal, and they see political space as a right, not an optional extra. The grievances about their standard of living have morphed into deeply political sentiment.
Over time, as discontent grew, so did the number of protests. In 2004, there were 1,975 protests in Hong Kong; by 2015 that had risen to 6,029. Tactics began to diversify. Attendance at the Tiananmen vigils began to rise. The friends who once snubbed Bonnie Leung now called her and asked if they could go together.
Despite the mounting frustrations of Hong Kongers, by early 2019, the pro-democracy movement looked to many as though it was in terminal decline. The last major protests, which took place in 2014, had ended in failure, and since then the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms had accelerated. On 31 March 2019, the usual stalwarts – Martin Lee, pro-democracy politicians and Joshua Wong, the teenage face of the 2014 umbrella movement – demonstrated against the extradition bill. The implications of the bill seemed obvious: if Hong Kong’s residents could easily be extradited to face the party-controlled mainland legal system, did “two systems” really exist any more? It looked like a death blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy. Yet recent history had showed the severe costs of challenging Beijing. The crowd totalled just 12,000.
To understand the movement that has taken shape over the past year, you need to understand its relationship with its predecessor, the umbrella movement. Those protests also centred on a demand for real universal suffrage, electrified the city and grabbed international attention. But they did not achieve their goals, and today many scorn the earlier movement as timid and unserious. “After umbrella, I felt totally disappointed in Hong Kong people,” said Jay, the student. “I was there on 28 September 2014. I was shot by teargas and pepper spray. The next day people were singing songs like it was a carnival. So I think they’re hopeless.”
From 2014 onwards, Beijing did everything it could to crush the possibility of another umbrella movement. Members of the Democratic Legislative council were disqualified from the parliament. Independent bookshops disappeared, while five booksellers dealing in salacious titles about China’s leaders were kidnapped and transported to the mainland. Hong Kong University rejected the highly regarded human-rights scholar Johannes Chan for a senior position after pro-Beijing newspapers waged a campaign against him, increasing concerns about pressure on academia. The umbrella movement leaders were jailed; the best-known, Wong, warned that Beijing’s encroachment had already diminished one country, two systems to “one country, one-and-a-half”.
The defeat of the umbrella movement had looked to most like an end, not a beginning. In retrospect, it was the moment when many Hong Kongers started to believe that polite protest wouldn’t work. For people like Jay, the umbrella movement has been a useful example of what not to do. Those protests demanded universal suffrage; this time round, they are primarily a stand against the erosion of rights. Those had charismatic leaders; these are leaderless and decentralised. Those were led by academics and students; these span classes, with construction workers and finance professionals joining forces. Those were committed to polite civil disobedience; these are more radical, and at times violent. Above all, the umbrella movement fractured quickly, while this time – despite all the government’s efforts to split the movement – people have stayed unified.
Yet when the mass protests began in June 2019, they were peaceful. In mid-June, after police fired tear gas on protesters outside the seat of the government, the Legislative Complex, protesters formed what is known as the “five demands”, which included the withdrawal of the bill and an independent inquiry into police brutality. On 15 June, Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, announced she was suspending the legislation. But as many as 2 million people took to the streets the following day.
Though he is known as Hong Kong’s father of democracy, Martin Lee was initially reluctant to join the demonstration. He thought it was time to negotiate: “I would have liked the movement to stop,” he admitted when we met last autumn at his wood-panelled chambers in central Hong Kong, where a bust of Winston Churchill stood on a shelf. In the end, he concluded he should march because the bill had been postponed rather than scrapped and might yet be revived. Lee embodies the city’s tradition of courageous but pragmatic, cautious activism. But he, like so many in the city, found himself swept along by the tide.
Others in the movement began to adopt more radical tactics, storming the legislative council on 1 July. Harsher police crackdowns spurred further protests as demonstrators escalated in response. Authorities refused permission for rallies and police violence intensified. Officers arrested bystanders for heckling them, drove vehicles directly at protesters and fired at journalists, in one case leaving a woman blind in one eye. Thugs were unleashed upon protesters and prominent activists, leaving them bloodied and beaten. In August, protesters paralysed the airport, forcing thousands of flights to be cancelled as police began to use live rounds. On 1 October, China’s national day, a police officer shot a 21-year-old student in the chest, while across town, a middle-aged man arguing with protesters was set on fire. The government invoked the emergency regulations ordinance, awarding itself draconian powers. In November, universities were turned into fortified camps for protesters, leading to a 12-day siege. Hundreds have been charged with the vaguely defined offence of rioting, which can carry a 10-year prison sentence, and more than 1,000 children have been arrested.
If the protests were initially motivated by fear about Hong Kong’s future, as they continued, a new sense of identity and community formed. It was evident in the flashmob performances of the new “anthem”, Glory to Hong Kong, held in the shopping malls that once seemed to epitomise the city’s individualism and devotion to consumption. It was evident, too, in the networks that formed to provide mutual aid, from feeding activists to treating the injuries of protesters who were too afraid of arrest to go to hospital. (These networks would find new purpose when the coronavirus reached Hong Kong. While the government dithered, the people took action: tracking cases and warning of apparent hot spots; distributing masks to the poor and elderly.)
The sheer inventiveness of protesters helped to maintain a movement that most expected to fizzle out within weeks. The Hong Kong Way, a 30-mile human chain that stretched across the city in late August, revived the spirits of supporters. Other actions had a concrete effect. The landslide for pro-democracy candidates in November’s local elections didn’t just send a message to Beijing. District councillors are among the few allowed to vote for the chief executive – potentially giving pro-democrats a greater say in who replaces Lam. It was followed by a surge in the formation of pro-democracy trade unions.
For Helen, a protester in her late 20s, the past year has redefined how she sees Hong Kong. “We valued economics over a lot of things before,” she said. “This time around, you see that people care for freedom and rights over economics. We found out how much we loved this place.”
While most protesters remained peaceful, a significant number started to adopt more extreme tactics, attacking Chinese state-owned businesses and companies seen to sympathise with the government. In a few cases, they assaulted locals sympathetic to Beijing. One man was killed by a stone thrown, seemingly by a protester, in a clash.
Along the route of a march in September, someone had scrawled under a bus stop: “Today Xinjiang, tomorrow Hong Kong.” To outsiders, it might have seemed incredible to compare this still largely rural region of western China, which is kept under extraordinarily repressive security, to this cosmopolitan global financial centre, still by far the freest part of China. Protesters saw Xinjiang as a warning: if they did not take a stand now, they would never be able to do so. People were fighting not to win, but because they knew what losing meant.
Many young protesters speak of a willingness to die for the cause, writing wills and last messages for their families to find. “There is some part of me that has changed,” says Niko Cheng, 22, a nursing student who volunteers as a medic. For months she has been prepared to be arrested, sacrificing her future. And at the height of the protests in the summer, she was ready to die if that would help to expose the brutality of the police. “If you have been to the frontline once, you feel that everyone surrounding you loves Hong Kong so much, and they are willing to do everything for it,” she said. “All of them have already given up their future to be here. After that, you can’t go back to being a normal person again. You can’t just watch,” she said.
Though there is no doubt that protesters have been violent, there is widespread suspicion in the movement – rightly or not – that undercover officers have acted as agents provocateurs. There is also fury that no police have been held responsible for outrages. Before the protests, just 6% of the population said it had no trust in the police; now, more than half report zero trust. The population is traumatised and exhausted. A study by the University of Hong Kong suggested that one in three adults had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, comparable to rates in conflict zones. (This may underestimate the extent of the problem, since only those over 18 were surveyed, while many protesters are younger.)
As support for the movement has intensified, so has opposition to it. A large chunk of the population, not only recent arrivals from the mainland, is equally passionate in rejecting the movement. Friends have fallen out. Parents have kicked out activist children. Helen, the protester whose view of Hong Kong has been transformed by the protests, hadn’t spoken to her father for months, even though they live in the same small flat. He couldn’t understand how irresponsible she was being. She couldn’t understand how a man who had swum across the sea to escape Mao’s China had become so loyal to Beijing.
The rallying cry for Helen’s generation has been “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time”. Now some have become supportive of the idea of full independence from the mainland, even if they believe it unrealisable. As people gathered late last month to protest Beijing’s announcement of the national security law, they chanted a slogan rarely heard before: “Hong Kong independence, the only way out!”
Activism in Hong Kong was always constrained by the understanding of how little was possible. Margaret Ng, a veteran democratic activist and former legislator, describes Hong Kong’s struggle with Beijing as “David and Goliath, without the sling”. But the political space has shrunk so far that, for some, the end result is not caution but nihilism. An ideology of self-destruction known as lam chao, or “If we burn, you burn with us”, has gained momentum. More radical demonstrators believe the collapse of Hong Kong is the only way to really bring change. “We are not afraid. If the Chinese army comes out, we will celebrate. The entire Hong Kong business environment will collapse. If they call the military here, it would ruin Hong Kong and also mainland China’s economy,” said Yan, 26.
“I have hope, but my hope is that we take China down with us,” Helen said.
Beijing has abandoned any pretence of winning hearts and minds. With the prospect of pro-democracy candidates making inroads in this September’s elections for the legislative council, and the international cover afforded by the coronavirus pandemic, repression by authorities has dramatically intensified. Now they are doing through fear what they failed to do through persuasion.
In the months before the new national security law was announced, Beijing replaced its envoy in Hong Kong with an enforcer lacking experience of the region but known for his hardline tactics. The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office described protesters as a “political virus” that required elimination. In April, 15 of the region’s best-known pro-democracy figures were arrested on charges of illegal assembly. They included Margaret Ng, the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan, a key vigil organiser – and Martin Lee, who had until now avoided the fate that Prince Charles had feared in 1997. “I’m relieved and very proud to finally be listed as a defendant after seeing so many brilliant young people arrested and charged,” the 81-year-old told reporters.
Even after these ominous moves, the news of the national security law was shattering. “If the extradition bill was a rifle aimed at our rights, the national security legislation is a machine gun,” Lai wrote. Johannes Chan, the legal scholar, said: “History tells us the law will soon apply to all kinds of political dissidents, then it will apply to media, NGOs, the lawyers and basically anyone who criticises the government.” That is how the mainland’s laws are used. The Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died while serving an 11-year sentence for incitement to subvert state power. His crime was a call for democratic reforms.
After the announcement, downloads of VPNs soared, as did calls to immigration consultants. Some in Hong Kong always saw the movement as a last-ditch bid to stay in their home. “If it doesn’t work, I’m leaving,” one professional said when the anti-extradition bill first drove him to the streets in anger in July. But the spur for many protesters was the knowledge that they would not be able to do so. “Across classes, people in Hong Kong have completely lost trust in the PRC. They just give up hope entirely. If they cannot leave, what can they do? Many people are asking this question,” says Ming Sing, an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Authorities insist there is nothing to fear, claiming that the new law will only target “a narrow set of acts”, and that the vast majority of Hong Kong residents will not be affected. Yet Carrie Lam has refused to rule out the law being applied retrospectively, and her statements seem designed to induce rather than allay people’s fears: “We are a very free society, so for the time being, people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say”, she told reporters in May.
Some Hong Kong residents are genuinely anxious to put the unrest behind them as the city plunges deeper into recession. But many are also under intense pressure to demonstrate support for Beijing. Victor Li, the son of the billionaire tycoon Li Ka-shing, said he hoped that the legislation would help the city’s society and economy return to normal. The heads of five of the city’s universities also endorsed the law, along with hundreds of celebrities and artists. State media claim that 2.93 million residents have signed a petition backing the law, though protesters believe this figure is wildly implausible.
With the law yet to be drafted, Hong Kong’s protesters hope international pressure could still have some impact on its final form, and how it is implemented and enforced. “I’m pretty sure even Beijing would have not preferred to exercise this nuclear option … we made Beijing pay the full price,” the researcher and activist Lokman Tsui wrote in a Facebook post the morning after the announcement. “Taiwan is watching. The United States is watching. Beijing is on notice, in front of the entire world. We have hope because we act. We take the hit, we get up and we live to fight another day.”
Beijing appears unfazed by US threats or international criticism. Even as the Chinese economy struggles to recover amid the pandemic, it no longer “needs” Hong Kong as it once did. In 1997, Hong Kong’s economy was equivalent to 20% of the mainland economy; now it is about 3%. Either Beijing has gambled that Trump won’t follow through on threats to remove the region’s special trade status, or – more likely – it has concluded that asserting its own power takes precedence. It, too, can take the hit.
Though the fear in Hong Kong is palpable, resistance has not yet disappeared. This year has seen a marked shift to what political scientist Edmund Cheng calls “everyday resistance”, such as trade unionisation and the “yellow-ribbon economy”, supporting only local businesses that back the protests. This is what opposition might look like in the long-term.
The Tiananmen commemoration, too, is evolving. Despite the ban, thousands of Hong Kong residents descended on Victoria Park. Others held vigils throughout each of the city’s districts. “You can seal the park but you can’t seal people’s hearts,” said Han Dongfang, a labour rights activist who led protests in Beijing in 1989.
For many, this year’s commemoration was no longer just about those who died in Beijing, but Hong Kong’s struggle. The usual slogans calling for the CPC to reckon with the massacre were drowned out by chants of the protest movement, as well newer slogans calling for independence: “One-nation Hong Kong”. The crowd included the older generation and young activists, who now see the events of 1989 as a warning.
“If we don’t do something now, maybe someday Hong Kong will become like June 4,” said Zack Ho, 18, who attended a vigil near his home before rushing to join the main one in Victoria Park. “We saw how the tanks rode over students. That’s the real picture of how evil the Chinese regime is. We have to remind Hong Kongers that maybe that’s the future of Hong Kong.”
The massacre, and the vigils to commemorate it, planted the seeds for today’s Hong Kong: the understanding of what is at stake, and the sacrifices that may be required to defend it. The CPC drew its own lessons from the events of that year – not just Tiananmen, but the collapse of the Soviet Union. It learned to avoid a bloody crackdown if you can help it – the costs are too high – but also to avoid concessions, and to hold on to political power at all costs.
Will Hong Kong ever see another mass commemoration of 1989? “I think it will be one of the things that they really want to get rid of,” said Leung. “It is totally peaceful. We hold candles. We do nothing but mourn, and be the guardians of the truth. But the idea is so threatening to the Communist party.”
It echoed her earlier remark that Hong Kongers knew, even when they didn’t care: not just about 1989, but about all the events that had followed in its wake – as mainlanders could not. The vigil stood not only for the city’s freedoms of assembly and expression, but also of information. That knowledge gave them the choice to exercise their rights or not, and to imagine another future, however impossible it might be to realise. No one can doubt, now, that Hong Kong people care. But how long will they know? How many candles will light up the darkness in the years to come?
Additional reporting by Verna Yu