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Lee Cheuk Yan on Hong Kong as a Cherished Space

February 1, 2012

Sharon Hom: I would like to start with a question about the genesis of the idea to organize a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. When was it first organized? Who were the conveners? What were the goals?

Lee Cheuk Yan:We have to go back to the beginning in 1989, when the Democracy Movement started, a time when Hong Kong people were seen as only economic animals. When the students started occupying Tiananmen Square, the students in Hong Kong reacted strongly. We had one million people march in Hong Kong in May 1989 and raised HK$20 million (U.S.$2.57 million) in just one night. So you can imagine the support in Hong Kong for China. And then the June Fourth massacre turned our hope that there would finally be a democratic China to despair. The massacre—the tanks rolling in, the gunshots, and the bloodshed—really broke the hearts of the people of Hong Kong. People felt great despair for the future, and at the same time they were very angry with what the regime had done.

The Hong Kong Alliance was organized in May 1989 to support the Democracy Movement in China. After June Fourth, of course, we condemned the massacre and continued to organize the people of Hong Kong against the regime for using the army against the people.

We started in Victoria Park in 1989. The first candlelight vigil took place 100 days after the massacre. Holding a memorial service 100 days after the death is a Buddhist custom. Victoria Park was the natural choice. Victoria Park is the geographic center of all social movements in Hong Kong. It is the place where you can put the maximum number of people. Then of course the next time was in 1990. We’ve had a candlelight vigil every year since then, 22 in total.

Sharon Hom: What the Alliance has been able to do over the years—organizing and convening that number of Chinese people to make a very strong statement—is very impressive. Can you describe the different thematic foci of the candlelight vigil over the past 22 years? What were the themes, i.e. the major concerns articulated in the beginning? How have they changed? And what have these changes signaled?

Lee Cheuk Yan: Over the 22 years, we have never changed the five basic goals in our platform: the release of democratic activists, the rehabilitation of June 4 and bringing those who are responsible for the massacre to justice, the end to one party rule, and the building of a democratic China. They have always been the fundamental reasons for the candlelight vigil for all these years because they represent the goal and the vision of the Hong Kong Alliance. But the theme has also developed over the years. In the beginning the vigil was an occasion for mourning and expressing anger against the massacre. Then we have also adapted the theme to reflect the political issues and mood of different times. So in the 1990s, when there was a movement in China to establish independent political parties, our theme was to support the right to form a political party. Then in 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, there was some concern that after the handover, the Chinese authorities might ban the Hong Kong Alliance. So our theme that year was: Hong Kong would continue its fight [for a democratic China] even after the handover.

Then in 2002 there came the proposed anti-subversion legislation, required by Article 23 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong.1 Article 23 is an import of the subversion law from China into Hong Kong. It posed a specific threat to the Alliance because the Alliance could be labeled as a subversive organization under such legislation. So that year the theme was the fight against the proposed Article 23 anti-subversion bill. When Liu Xiaobo initiated the Charter 08, our theme was “Support Charter 08.” In recent years when we believed that young people should take the lead, the theme became “Passing the torch.” So you can see a continuous vision and set of goals and at the same time, themes that reflect the political mood, the political environment, and the challenges of the time. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 [which established the Republic of China]. So for this year, we used Sun Yat-sen’s motto, “the revolution is not yet completed, all my comrades must struggle on” (革命尚未成功,同志仍须努力), for a theme about building democracy.

And then the third thing I want to comment on is the ups and downs of the numbers of people who turn out for the annual June Fourth candlelight vigil. You know, this year, the 22nd anniversary of June Fourth, 150,000 people turned up. But we don’t always have such a huge turnout. In the beginning, in 1990, we had 150,000—which is understandable, because it was just after the massacre. But then as time went on, the numbers got reduced. I believe one year we had 44,000. And then in 1997, it went up again because that year everyone was worried that the Hong Kong Alliance would hold its last candlelight vigil because the Communist Party was taking over Hong Kong. So that year, everyone came out. And then after that, in 1999, on the 10th anniversary of June Fourth, there was a higher number, and a still higher number in 2004, on the 15th anniversary. Five years later, on the 20th anniversary, in 2009, the number went back up to 150,000. That was very, very moving because suddenly we found out that after 20 years the number of people coming to the candlelight vigil could match that in 1990.

What really surprised us was that after 20 years, young people began to join in. At that time, we thought perhaps it was because that year was the 20th anniversary, and people were responding strongly to increased publicity in the media and more commemorative documentaries on television. But then on the 21st and the 22nd anniversaries, we had the similar numbers. Then we realized that now, after 22 years, the number went back up again because young people are beginning to join in and mainlanders are able to come to Hong Kong to join the candlelight vigil. That we can still hold a candlelight vigil that can fill up the whole Victoria Park, that people are willing to queue up for 30 minutes to find a place in the park, and that the people of Hong Kong continue to show their defiance of the Communist Party after 22 years—all this is very, very encouraging for us.

Interaction between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders

Sharon Hom: Can you share some observation about the interactions between mainlanders and the Hong Kong people in these vigils? In the last few years, the actual number of mainlanders—students, tourists, business people, visiting scholars, workers—coming into Hong Kong has steadily and significantly increased. The number is now in the millions. When I tried talking with some of the mainlanders, some of them did engage with me and even take some of our materials. It was very interesting. I see it—the fact that despite the total censorship on Tiananmen and 1989 across the border, there are mainlanders attending the candlelight vigil, freely picking up materials, and talking to other people—as one example of the impact that Hong Kong has on China. And that is quite a significant impact.

Lee Cheuk Yan:Overall, the flow of mainlanders and tourists to Hong Kong has been increasing. I think it is now about 10 million each year. Right now, about ten percent of university students in Hong Kong are from mainland China. So you can imagine 10,000 or more mainland students are in the different universities in Hong Kong. And then there are the mainland tourists. So there are two mainland groups that we can target in our education and publicity campaigns. In addition to the June Fourth event, we have lots of activities on the streets spread throughout the year to publicize and discuss issues that are facing the Chinese people—human rights or political issues, and the need for democracy.

We have a lot of chances to interact with tourists. For example, on New Year’s Eve, we have a gathering in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, one of the busiest tourist areas in Hong Kong, to talk about June Fourth and the need for democracy in China. We also campaigned for the release of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei on the street. At the street level you can always see the mainlanders being interested in our message. They will come over and talk and may sign their name for the release of Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei. They also want to get our booklets, our publications. They are interested.

Another level is the university students. It’s even easier for them to get to the message because in the university itself there are a lot of forums for interactions between mainland and Hong Kong students. There are free discussions on the various political and social issues in Hong Kong. So I think for mainland students they can come over and feel the free atmosphere in Hong Kong and the very strong civil society and the fight for democracy in Hong Kong itself.

But then we can never separate Hong Kong and China. So the issue of June Fourth comes in. There are documentaries that interviewed Chinese students. The students explained that when they were raised in China, they did not know anything about June Fourth, that their parents refused to discuss it, and that the first time in their life they were confronted with June Fourth was when they came to Hong Kong. They said that after reading all the materials, they decided to join the movement and become volunteers, or come to a march, or join the candlelight vigil. Some of them want to volunteer for the Hong Kong Alliance.

And the other observation is, during June Fourth, the mainlanders who stay on and talk to us say that every year when they come to the vigil, they feel that it is very precious that Hong Kong provides this space for them to participate. They get all our T-shirts, all our materials. We ask them if they are afraid to take them back to China. They say, “It’s ok, we may not show them publicly, but we really cherish what you are doing and we really cherish all the materials we can read in Hong Kong.”

I think tourists are coming to Hong Kong to have fun. But those who come to the vigil are there because of June Fourth and because of political expression. For example, when the Zhao Ziyang2 memorial was held in Victoria Park in January 2005, many mainlanders came to Hong Kong for that. They said that they couldn’t have memorials in China. So Hong Kong is a place for them to express themselves, to join in the political movement in Hong Kong. So I think that we have to explore how the Hong Kong Alliance can step up our campaign among mainlanders and try to get them to join in our political movement for democracy in China.

Sharon Hom: About two or three years ago we organized a roundtable of young people from mainland China who were studying in Hong Kong. They were graduate students studying in different disciplines, including the sciences, law, and the social sciences. When I raised the question if any of them had gone to the vigil in Victoria Park—there was first dead silence. Then, some of the reactions were very hostile, accusing us of being brainwashed by western propaganda regarding what had happened. They asked whether we had seen the photos of what “they did to the soldiers,” etc. I’m curious if you have encountered some of those reactions in your interactions with mainlanders.

One other question about these mainland students studying in Hong Kong’s universities, particularly in the graduate schools: by and large, they come from better educated families, if not elite families. And they are a very small percentage of the young people in mainland China. What do you observe about this group of very privileged young people?

Lee Cheuk Yan: First, we have also met with this kind of hostility. When we go to forums in the university, there is always a group of hostile mainland Chinese students who would say, “China is now very strong, and we are glad that China had the Olympics. But you guys are bad-mouthing China. And June Fourth is something that happened in the past, now China is strong.” This is very standard Communist Party propaganda talk.

It is not up to us to educate them—it’s the interflow between the students that is important. I think young people should talk to young people. Whenever those hostile Chinese students speak, then other Hong Kong or mainland students who would say something like, “we appreciate that people in Hong Kong can commemorate June Fourth and light a candle and this is something we want to know more about.” And after going to the screening of the Tiananmen Mothers’ documentary that the Alliance produced, some mainland students also feel very sad about what happened in June Fourth. So there is always this interflow between Hong Kong and mainland students. I cannot exclude the fact that of course there are always those who take the hard line of the Communist Party.

And also, in Hong Kong, the Chinese government liaison office has the money to organize activities for those students. We have to always remember that the Communist Party is always there. They have the resources. They have the manpower to monitor everything, including the activities of mainland Chinese university students. They have tried to organize them through some of these mainland Chinese student associations and by pouring money into them to promote the views of the Chinese government. So we have to counteract that with the Hong Kong student unions. They are the ones that organize lots of forums on political issues in Hong Kong. So we hope that the Hong Kong student unions can counter the mainland Communist Party’s control of the mainland Chinese student associations. I think it’s not really that easy to get all the mainland Chinese students over to our side.

Getting back to your point about mainland students being the privileged ones—the one thing about young people is that they are easier to mold into the specific environment. What I mean is that when they are in a free environment, in the free political environment in Hong Kong, they tend to change. You know, lots of revolutionaries are from the bourgeoisie. So even the privileged class, given the fact that they are young, they can be open to new ideas and also the way of life in Hong Kong, as well as a more free democratic China.

Sharon Hom: Let me ask you a question that I get from many different sources: given the overt pressure that Beijing successfully exerts on many governments in the world, how is it that the Hong Kong government allows more than 100,000 people—as many as 150,000 people—to convene on the most sensitive of events, June Fourth? Why doesn’t the Hong Kong government take a more firm hand in controlling the event? Indeed, it actually appears to not be able to control it even if it wishes to.

Lee Cheuk Yan:My first reaction to this question is more modest one. Maybe we are not subversive enough. That is to say: we can be the face for the democratic activity in Hong Kong, but our activity cannot yet cross over the border, or our impact isn’t strong enough to make them feel so threatened that they have to crack down on us no matter what cost they have to pay.

So first, we are not really that threatening. That is something we may have to evaluate: Why are we not strong enough, or doing enough? At the same time, the second reason is that the Chinese government had made an international commitment on Hong Kong, to let Hong Kong enjoy the freedom they had before 1997, and also a promise of democracy which actually has not been realized. But at least the freedom part is something they promised to the world and it is something the people of Hong Kong really cherish. So, if China tries to crack down on us, then the reaction of people of Hong Kong would be very strong. It would be so strong that I think unless there is really bloodshed or else the government would have to compromise.

I’ll give the case of the Article 23 legislation back in 2002 as an example. They wanted to go forward with that legislation but then there was a march by more than half a million people. All the main streets were blocked by people in 2003. People kept on coming out. No matter if you were a businessman, a professional, a student, young or old—all came out. So, if they still went ahead with the legislation, they would risk all of Hong Kong getting out of control, and people being out in the street every day. So they were afraid of this. They also wanted to have a stable Hong Kong. At least, not to have a crackdown. So they had to compromise. If they didn’t compromise, then the power of the people would have been unleashed on the street and I think they don’t know how to handle it. I also don’t think they want bloodshed. They want to avoid that, so they have to avoid a confrontation with the people.

So on the one side is that the regime wants to maintain the stability of Hong Kong and its international image, and live up to its promise of “one country, two systems.” They want to show the world they recognize that. And on the other hand, there is a strong people’s movement that won’t allow the regime to take away our freedom. The international value of Hong Kong is still there. Even today, it is a financial center, an international city. The Chinese government wants to show to the world that it will let Hong Kong continue as an international city. So combining all these factors, they let us do what we’re doing now. And that is exactly the space that we have to cherish and we have to use or utilize fully to support our brothers and sisters in China.

Supporting Mainland Human Rights Defenders

Sharon Hom: Last question. How do you think this message of support and solidarity every year is getting in to the mainland—to the rights defenders, activists, and petitioners? How do they get the message and do you get any reactions from them?

Lee Cheuk Yan: I think all the groups in China know about the Hong Kong Alliance. They know what we are doing. They know very well that we are here to support their cause. When they had the Charter 08 signature campaign, we also did it in Hong Kong to support them. When Ai Weiwei was detained, we had lots of actions in Hong Kong to appeal for his release. We had people who did street graffiti—to imprint the image of a painting of Ai Weiwei on the streets. This was shown on television too. Then the next day or two days afterwards, the same image appeared on the streets in Guangzhou. So what we are doing in Hong Kong was replicated in China. So I think this is the sort of thing we’re looking for: we have an action in Hong Kong and we see a reaction in China. In other words, we want to see the movement of information, that the solidarity and support that we’re showing in Hong Kong being communicated to China.

There is the recent case of Rita Fan, from just two weeks ago. Fan is a deputy from Hong Kong to the PRC National People’s Congress, who is a former president of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, who wanted to run for the Chief Executive office. She said that during June Fourth, 1989, she was in Hawaii and she only watched CNN. She tried to say that people of Hong Kong were brainwashed by CNN. Then the Hong Kong Alliance went and protested against her and gave her our DVD of June Fourth, and the reports in Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper. What we were saying was, “Don’t give us all this bullshit about CNN; it was a Hong Kong newspaper that reported very clearly what happened on June Fourth.” And so we have a protest. Then Ding Zilin, a representative of the Tiananmen Mothers, also came out and protested against Rita Fan. So all this interaction is what we have. If there is something happening in China we do some action in Hong Kong and they know about our support. The action keeps going up to another level so that international media and the Hong Kong media will take notice.

One more point I want to add is the value of Hong Kong as the information exporter for Chinese dissidents or Chinese human rights groups. If they want their message to go out to the world, they can go through Hong Kong. And when the message goes through Hong Kong, the people in China can know about it. Very often the news in Hong Kong, on TVB or other TV stations, can be seen in the Guangzhou area. And some of the newspapers of Hong Kong are also accessible in China, albeit through unofficial distribution channels. This is an interaction that I want to strengthen in the future. The key question remains: How can we better support the struggle, the democracy movement in China, the human rights defenders in China?

Sharon Hom: That is HRIC’s question too: How to more effectively advance the progress of democracy and the protection of human rights in China. That is a goal shared by many in the international community, particularly the foreign governments and the UN. They ask the same strategic question. If you could give a short answer to them, what would you say to them? What would you want them to keep in mind?

Lee Cheuk Yan: I think it’s very important to put human rights above the economic interests of all the western governments. I think they now set economic interests as a higher priority than human rights. We should reverse that order of priority. Second, with the new social media, the Chinese young people really get more messages out about what’s happening in and outside of China more effectively. This information flow is the key to change in China in the future. So, the key strategy challenge is to harness to the fullest the power of information technology to really give a voice to young people in China.

Sharon Hom: Frankly, facilitating information flow and the exchange of diverse views, and exploiting those cracks in the censorship will lead to a flood of truth. And that sounds pretty subversive to me! You are doing a great job.

Lee Cheuk Yan: I think the most subversive force is coming from inside the Communist Party in China. The corruption is really subverting the whole system. They are subverting themselves.

Editors’ Notes

1. Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law requires the Hong Kong Special Administration Region to enact laws prohibiting “treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.” On September 24, 2002 the Hong Kong government released its proposed legislation, but refused to release a “White Bill” showing the actual language for the proposed anti-subversion law. After protests and massive demonstrations on July 1, 2003, and resignations by two Hong Kong cabinet members, the bill was withdrawn and shelved indefinitely. ^

2. Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) was a reformist leader in China in the 1980s. He was China’s Premier (1980–1987) and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (1987–1989). Because of his sympathy for the student demonstrators during the 1989 Democracy Movement and opposition to a military crackdown, Zhao was stripped of his positions in the government and the Party, and was put under house arrest for 15 years until his death in 2005. ^

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