Lest We Forget

The People’s Liberation Army of China fired indiscriminately on June 3–4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Columns of tanks rumbled along Chang’an Avenue. Numerous unarmed protesters who fought to advance human rights and for a democratic system in China were slaughtered. Many more were injured or have since been exiled from their country. Although this was far from the bloodiest episode in communist China, it was important to Hong Kong in more ways than one: It inspired the largest protests in our history, reinforced our fear for the transfer of sovereignty (which was then only eight years away), and reminded us of the relevance of Chinese affairs.

Hence every year a candlelight vigil has been held at Victoria Park — the largest of its kind in the world — to honor those who have died for freedom and democracy and to call for an end to totalitarianism in mainland China. I have attended it since the age of 14 until I left Hong Kong, after which I still managed to be present once: two summers ago when I happened to be in town. Those sympathetic to the Communist Party who have for years denied the infamous incident, unsurprisingly, continue to condemn this annual event.

Localists on the political far right in Hong Kong, however, have recently joined the game to denounce commemorations of this nature. They ridicule us for lighting candles against a murderous regime; they question the usefulness of “singing songs”; they label us “leftards.” Some proclaim that Hong Kongers should not care about or intervene in problems in China, or that doing so is not at all viable. Others even suggest that it is not in Hong Kong’s strategic interest to fuel democratic reforms in China (the idea being that we will lose our competitiveness). The long list of argument goes on.

That there are even ongoing debates today in Hong Kong on whether or not we should host the annual commemoration both depresses and frightens me. Presently those of us who are in defense of doing so faces more brutal assaults from the tireless Localists than from Beijing! I certainly welcome comments from all sides on the matter of Hong Kong independence and in fact encourage more discussions on it. Neither am I personally too enthusiastic to embrace the Chinese identity. But as much as we may resent the China factor, it is real and it affects us deeply; who are we to fool if we disregard it?

Twenty-seven years later, we are confronted with the decision to show either our ignorance or remembrance of the past. As a Hong Konger I choose the latter. Commemorating June 4th victims is a political issue, but it is above all also a moral issue. It is with knowledge of history, I believe, that we as a society can move forward, whichever direction we end up taking.

“But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.”

—George Orwell, 1984

I hope to see some of my friends outside the Chinese Consulate in New York City tomorrow evening.

Jeffrey Ngo