Activists in Hong Kong shift focus to local democracy

Tiananmen Square protests are no longer relevant to some in the former UK colony

In searing heat, organisers were putting the finishing touches to the stage at Hong Kong's Victoria Park, where tens of thousands are expected to gather to mark the 27th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Beijing on June 4th, 1989.

At the annual vigil, leaders from the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, remember the pro-democracy movement and call for the end of one-party dictatorship and the establishment of universal suffrage in China.

But now many younger democracy activists are turning away from the event. The fight for democracy in China is not their fight, they say, and they are turning to the “localist” movement that wants more freedom for Hong Kong.

"Everyone remembers what happened on June 4th 27 years ago, but some attitudes are different. Some younger people don't feel the responsibility," said volunteer Sean Tang.


He is standing before a statue of the Goddess of Democracy, the symbol of the democracy movement in 1989 which was destroyed on Tiananmen Square, but revived in Victoria Park for the annual event.

Grim portent

The democracy protests in China, centred on Tiananmen Square, were closely watched in Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British colony and was eight years away from reverting to Chinese rule. Hong Kong students took part in the protests and helped smuggle the leaders out through Hong Kong after the movement was crushed.

The crackdown, when tanks rolled on the streets of Beijing and hundreds of demonstrators were killed, was a grim portent of what lay ahead for Hong Kong, and there have been annual vigils in Victoria Park to mark the event.

Support for the localist movement has increased since the failure of the 79-day Occupy protests in 2014 to deliver any concessions on greater democracy for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is guaranteed certain freedoms under the laws governing the 1997 reversion to Chinese rule, but there is a feeling that since the Occupy protests, freedoms are being rolled back and Beijing is clamping down.

Street hawkers

During the lunar New Year holiday in February, a demonstration by street hawkers protesting against a crackdown on illegal food stalls in

Mong Kok

turned into a street battle and localists were blamed for the violence.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s courts are hearing cases of more than 1,000 people who were arrested during the Occupy protests.

Some of the localist groups are calling for independence for Hong Kong.

“After Occupy Central wasn’t successful and after the central government started to clamp down, a lot of younger people feel that it’s useless,” said Tang, who is wearing a T-shirt calling for support for the Tiananmen Mothers, who every year call for justice for their children who died in the massacre.

As we talk, people approach to give messages of support and put cash in a box. Rather pointedly, however, one group of men in their 20s completely ignore the stand.

“I was born in 1967. I was 22 when the massacre happened. In Hong Kong we saw it all happen. I went to Tiananmen Square a few years ago and I saw where it happened and I was very touched. There is a very strong difference between Hong Kong and Beijing,” said Tang.

Support for the vigil is definitely easing. On the 25th anniversary two years ago, organisers said 180,000 showed up in Victoria Park, although police put the figure at half that.

Only 1,500 people showed up for a march on May 28th to protest against the crackdown and the Hong Kong Federation of Students has said it will not take part in the rally.

Wang Dan, one of the student leaders on Tiananmen Square who now lives in Taiwan, warned in the South China Morning Post that isolated campaigns would not bring about change, and he urged young people to learn from history.