Tiananmen and the Earthquake Effect

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One interesting exercise during the anniversary of the Tiananmen killings is to consider what people in Hong Kong think. On the mainland people don’t talk about June 4 that often, which is partly due to the fact that it has now been 19 years. But of course as Simon notes below the subject is banned from public discourse, so some of that reticence is also practicality. If people are free to say what they like about June 4 in any format and choose not to, then you know they don’t care. But the police presence in the square, the harassment of dissidents, the snail speed of the Internet today are all signs that the authorities at the very least haven’t forgotten June 4.

Hong Kong doesn’t have such overt restrictions on speech, and so it is easier to have a sense of what people think. The University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program regularly asks residents’ thoughts on June 4, and this year their survey found that percentage of respondents who believe the central government made the wrong decision in ’89 has dropped over last year, from 63% to 58%. Program director Robert Chung attributed that to “the Olympic tide and the Sichuan earthquake relief.”

That’s another way of saying they aren’t basing their opinions solely on what happened 19 years ago. When people generally think better of the Communist Party, as during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and just after the government has done a good job of disaster recovery after a deadly earthquake, then they don’t think so negatively about a horrible incident nearly 20 years ago. In 2003, when tempers were running high because a killer disease–SARS–spread amid government secrecy and Hong Kong was on the verge of enacting a harsh anti-subversion law at Beijing’s urging, then people were less willing to overlook old errors. That year 62% felt Beijing was in the wrong, which climbed again to 67% in 2004 before beginning a decline to today’s level.