After dusk on June 3, 1989, units of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army shot their way from Beijing’s suburbs into the city center. By dawn on June 4, a column of tanks and armored personnel carriers had mowed through citizens’ barricades and recaptured Tiananmen Square from unarmed student protesters, clearing tents and grinding a thirty-three-foot-tall papier-mâché “Goddess of Democracy” into the flagstones. A stunned world watched on live television. (The death toll is still unknown, estimated in the thousands.)
The British colony of Hong Kong looked on with special dread. In 1989, Hong Kong was eight short years away from the 1997 expiration of Britain’s colonial lease, and slated to rejoin China as a “special administrative region.” Beijing promised London that Hong Kong’s distinct way of life—free markets and a clamorous public sphere—would remain intact for five decades, until 2047. The agreement included a roadmap to direct popular elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. The colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty, as scheduled, in 1997. The Handover, as it was known in English (the Chinese called it “the Return”), salved the humiliations of the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century and delivered Beijing’s GDP-driven technocrats a springboard to global commerce in the twenty-first.
Every June 4 since 1989, Hongkongers have congregated by the tens of thousands for candlelight vigils in downtown Victoria Park—proof that Beijing has kept some promises to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy.” Familiar rhythms of remembrance have taken root: a torch procession, a moment of silence, opposition leaders’ speeches, protest anthems sung, names of the dead and jailed flashed on projector screens. Every June 4, the slogan rolls across the crowd in Cantonese: Pingfaan Luksei, Justice for June 4! “Pingfaan Luksei,” they respond in unison. After the Handover in 1997, Hong Kong’s vigil became the only major memorial possible on Chinese soil. Hongkongers have spent over two and a half decades carrying the flame for Beijing’s students. Each year, the crowd intones: “to achieve justice for June 4, to establish democracy in China.”
This year’s was the first June 4 gathering since Hong Kong conjured a student uprising of its own. The Umbrella Movement, so named for protesters’ preferred shield against police tear gas, erupted last September after China’s promised democracy timeline emerged with a catch: Beijing would screen candidates before a popular vote. Enraged student leaders led their classmates into the streets. With tents and barricades and human chains, they immobilized Hong Kong’s central arteries to demand “real universal suffrage.”
Over a ten-week occupation, downtown traffic flow was not the only collateral casualty. Reputations of older opposition leaders suffered too. Students excoriated democracy grandees as too slow, too conservative, too willing to accommodate the Communist Party. This older protest generation, shaped by opposition to British colonialism, might oppose the Communist Party but would never question Hong Kong’s status as a part of China. Some younger radicals, unborn in 1989 or even 1997, have made incendiary calls for Hong Kong to become an independent city-state like Singapore, or return to British rule. (The Party, which has staked its reputation on reversing historical humiliations, would sooner roll out the tanks than allow “splittists” to “dismember the fatherland,” even at a steep economic cost.)
More fault lines emerged at this year’s vigil. Student groups, a mainstay of the demonstrations since 1989, are falling away. Polls taken last month indicated that more than two thirds of university students had no plans to attend. Student unions from several campuses, including the flagship University of Hong Kong, withdrew entirely. For Hong Kong’s liberal opposition, the fracture is unprecedented. “I am not interested in China; I do not feel like I belong to China or am Chinese,” one student leader told me. His group held a separate vigil on HKU’s campus, focused on democratization within Hong Kong itself. “The view is: why is it our job to fight for democracy in mainland China if we don’t even have it here?” explained one graduate who remains active in protests. For some, the vigil is useful only as a stick to beat the bogeyman Beijing, or to keep the protest muscles limber. “I was born two months after Tiananmen; my mother had me in the womb when she went to the first-ever protest,” a recent graduate of Hong Kong’s City University told me. “But I only think about China when I am posting online about how bad things are up there. I have never visited Beijing. If I go to the vigil, it will only be because I know the vigil pisses off China.” On social media, students make a point of writing in Cantonese characters unintelligible to mainland Mandarin-speakers, although they are educated to write in standard Chinese. “Why should I?” asked one. “It’s not like I have anything to say to [the mainlanders].”
Despite clear weather, this year’s crowd in Victoria Park was noticeably sparser, and older, than in previous years. The organizers tried to claim some of the students’ protest mantle, sporting t-shirts with a yellow umbrella and putting last fall’s protest anthem (“Raise Your Umbrella”) on the program for a half-hearted singalong. But Hong Kong’s freshly minted faces of protest, made famous over the past year, were conspicuously absent. A few students, none a bona fide celebrity, spoke onstage in a cursory show of unity. One speaker tried to find common cause: “just like the students in Beijing in 1989, the meddling of Beijing is our enemy here in Hong Kong.” Wang Chaohua, a 1989 Beijing protest leader living in exile in Los Angeles, spoke plaintively in a video address projected on large screens: “the democracy movements in Hong Kong and in mainland China have an unbreakable bond.” As the rally reached its emotional peak—the ritual call-and-response demanding democracy in China—many younger attendees were walking for the exits. “Gonna go early to avoid crowd,” texted a graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong involved in the Umbrella Movement. “Many ppl not agreeing with old-fashion memorial,” she explained.
In a Sunday essay in Ming Pao, Hong Kong’s main intellectual newspaper, columnist On Yu meditated on how the burdens and habits of remembrance shift from one generation to another. “It has been twenty-six years since June 4, and the incident has flowed into the marrow of Hong Kong’s body politic,” he wrote. “In cherishing pluralistic society, in attending marches or holding candles at vigils; these are models that persist even as particular movements might have diverging objectives, or totally different frames of reference.”
The percentage of Hongkongers identifying as Zhongguoren, or Chinese nationals, has dropped precipitously in a generation. Prince Wong, seventeen and just appointed as spokeswoman for the student group Scholarism, told Ming Pao: “even if I say I am Chinese, it is not as if that identity is something to be proud of, so I prefer to call myself a Hongkonger.” For over two decades, Party leaders in Beijing have hoped that Hong Kong would forget. They should be careful what they wish for. As the Umbrella generation grows into adulthood, forgetting Tiananmen may mean forgetting China, too.
Nick Frisch is an East Asian studies doctoral student at Yale’s graduate school, and a Resident Fellow at Yale Law School.