Hong Kong’s annual memorial to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is sparking a new kind of controversy, evident of a growing split within the city’s democracy movement that may upend Hong Kong politics.
Attendance this year may be much lower than the tens of thousands of Hong Kongers that usually gather in the city’s Victoria Park to commemorate the massacre in a grand display of defiance to Beijing from inside China’s borders. Major pro-democracy organizations are abandoning the 26-year-old rally and rival events are being held around the city.
Since 1990, the Victoria Park vigil – organized by the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China – has called for the rehabilitation of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, the end of one-party dictatorship, and the building of a democratic China.
That last point has become a point of contention with many young people in the city, who object to equating Hong Kong with China and have called for the rally to focus more on local democratic development.
While there have been rumblings for a number of years, and two small alternative rallies last year, the controversy got a major boost last month when the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) – the city’s oldest and largest student organization – announced it was leaving the Alliance and not taking part in the rally.
“(HKFS) have been on the forefront of the pro-democracy movement since 1989, and have always participated in the vigils for over 26 years” says Lee Cheuk-yan, Labour Party lawmaker and secretary of the Alliance.
“We feel sad this year that they’re not going to take part.”
HKFS chairwoman Hillary Tjhan told the South China Morning Post that the Federation felt it should focus on the political development of Hong Kong, rather than building a democratic China.
The Federation did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Speaking to RTHK radio, Chinese University of Hong Kong student union president Chow Shue-fung said the Victoria Park rally had become “rigid” and many in Hong Kong did not agree with how the Alliance “connects Chinese identity with building democracy in China and June 4.”
“Vindication of the 1989 movement and building democracy in China are not moral responsibilities of Hong Kongers,” he said.
Students at Shue Yan University took this criticism even further, issuing a statement saying the alliance has become “pimps and bawds in a brothel after they themselves were raped.”
Why it matters
Mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre – in which the People’s Liberation Army bloodily cracked down on mostly student protesters, killing hundreds – is still strictly censored in China.
Around the anniversary, online censors block mention of everything from 占占占占人 (symbolizing the famous “Tank Man” photo) to posts referencing “today” or “that day,” according to China Digital Times.
Relatives of those that died are regularly harassed and even imprisoned. In a statement released this week, the Tiananmen Mothers, which lobbies for justice for the victims of June 4th, said members are “eavesdropped and surveilled upon by the police; we are followed or even detained, and our computers searched and confiscated.”
This makes the Hong Kong commemoration – the biggest in the world and the only major one on Chinese soil (small rallies are also held in Macau every year) – all the more important.
The controversy over the rally is related to the rise of so-called “localist” groups in Hong Kong, who advocate for greater autonomy for the city, with some pushing for full independence.
Part of that push is disconnecting Hong Kong issues from wider Chinese political development, and moving away from the “one country, two systems” consensus under which most traditional pro-democracy parties in the city have always operated.
That has put the rally in an awkward position, with some localists viewing attendance as implicitly accepting that Hong Kong is part of China and that the city’s residents are Chinese.
Some have rejected this view, including Nathan Law, former HKFS secretary-general and current chairman of Demosisto, a localist party that argues for Hong Kong self-determination.
Law says he had his “political enlightenment” attending previous rallies, and it has “huge meaning for me.”
“Even though I don’t regard myself as ethnic Chinese, I still go to the memorial rally in Victoria Park,” he told CNN.
“(The controversy) shows there’s some division between the younger generation and the 1989 democracy movement generation,” says Lee.
“We believe the fight for Hong Kong democracy and the fight for democracy in China are the same fight.”
He said he understands the “identity issue” many younger Hong Kongers felt, but said it “should not be a barrier to working together to fight authoritarian rule.”
While the Victoria Park rally is ultimately just one event, there are concerns within the wider pro-democracy movement that the controversy is indicative of a bigger split that could effect the upcoming elections to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament.
“In a way this may be a prelude to the coming election, in terms of the differences between the two camps,” says Lee.
While at least five new localist parties to emerge from the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement have announced plans to join forces in the upcoming elections, others, including Demosisto and pro-independence party Hong Kong Indigenous, have not.
“There’s a danger that when the vote is split too much the (pro-Beijing) camp will win more seats with less votes,” Lee says.
“I think everyone will suffer.”
CNN’s Vivian Kam contributed reporting.