Remembering Tiananmen

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Hong Kong is quickly approaching the 10th anniversary of its return to China, and for the most part things seem rosy. The economy is up, unemployment is down, no mysterious diseases or financial crises are wreaking havoc. And yet something keeps popping up that reflects Hong Kong’s continuing uncertainty as a place in China. That something is the shadow of Tiananmen.

The anniversary of the June 4, 1989 killings is always marked here, although the turnout has dwindled somewhat in recent years. Since 1999 the territory’s Legislative Council has debated an annual motion calling for vindication of the student protesters; it’s never passed. Even the debate was called into question this year after radical legislator Leung Kwok-hung, better known as “Long Hair,” proposed a motion with much more aggressive language that was blocked by the Legislative Council president. Eventually longtime democracy advocate Martin Lee proposed a motion using the same wording as years past, and the chamber will debate it on May 30.

Now an even bigger Tiananmen bombshell has dropped. Prominent lawmaker Ma Lik told reporters yesterday that June 4 should not be considered a massacre. “We should not say the Communist Party massacred people on June 4. I never said that nobody was killed, but it was not a massacre,” Ma said, according to the South China Morning Post. “A massacre would mean that the Communist Party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately.” He went on to say that the government should decide what really happened, not “gweilos,” a Cantonese word for foreigners.

Today Ma was busy backtracking. But his response doesn’t give much indication of why he made the original denial. Hong Kong is, after all, a place that had one million people march in May 1989 to support the Tiananmen demonstrators. While the anniversary events can’t pull anywhere near those numbers, polls conducted over the past several years indicate solid support for the students and opposition to the Chinese government’s actions in ’89. If Ma, who heads the pro-Beijing the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, is trying to win support from people who think the Central Government did the right thing in ’89, then he’s looking to capture a minority.

Of course, public opinion doesn’t always mean much in Hong Kong. If it did, the democrats’ annual motion would have a good shot of passing by now. Instead, Ma’s move seems more about the repeated postponement of democratic reforms. (Here’s Hong Kong blogger Hemlock’s take on the matter.) Ma said that universal suffrage shouldn’t be introduced until 2022, when more Hong Kongers have gone through “national awareness education.” For now though, another June 4 anniversary is approaching, and people in Hong Kong are more aware of Tiananmen than they have been for some while.