Friday 5 June 2015

Uncertain times

They say that last night's candle-lit vigil to mark the 26th anniversary of  the Tiananmen Square protests and to commemorate its victims, attracted fewer people than last year, as though it was somehow an admission of defeat. 

On the ground the event feels more like a victory though, albeit a restrained and dignified one. From Tin Hau MTR station to Victoria Park  the area is crammed with people of every demographic profile, patiently proceeding along a narrow route lined with colourful banners, women distributing leaflets, police officers, volunteers with collection boxes for the victim's of the crackdown, young men bawling into megaphones, and cheerful T-shirt vendors. The atmosphere is orderly and restrained but hot, noisy, political and electric too. I ask the women selling one distinctive yellow T-shirt decorated with black characters to explain the slogan. Her colleague turns the shirt around to reveal the English translation; "Uncertain times call for certain action."

By the time we reach the park, the assembly area is already full of thousands of people sitting, listening to the organiser's announcements with the soft glow of their candles piercing the dark night air. It is a moving spectacle and they remain dignified, defiant and determined as our procession files past into a secondary area on the Causeway Bay side of the park, where a large video screen conveys the events to the ever-swelling crowd.

This is the only place in China where a public event marking the military suppression off the Tiananmen Square student protest in 1989 would be allowed to happen and it is the first vigil since the Occupy demonstrations. It is peaceful, well organised, spontaneous and uncensored in any way. Perhaps it represents all that is best about Hong Kong and the event must be an annual thorn in the side to those dry apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party looking on from Beijing.

Given that many feared those idealistic young protesters in their tented settlements in Admiralty and Mon Kok might suffer the same fate as their counterparts in Beijing 26 years ago, this year's event is particularly poignant. In such uncertain times, it  seems tragic that some of the younger, more radical localist groups have boycotted the vigil as an irrelevance to Hong Kong affairs and not of their direct concern.

The unfortunate reality is that freedom of expression and civil liberty in China must be everyone's concern and this event deserves everyone's support, if only as a symbol of the distinctive identity and the essential values of Hong Kong.