(All photos by Karen Longwell)
By Karen Longwell
Evening had come, but the heat of the day still lingered. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I made my way through the crowds.
It was June 4, the day of a vigil in Hong Kong commemorating the 30th anniversary of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Participants pushed their way through a jammed subway station and spilled onto the streets. The massive crowds that turned out that evening foreshadowed what was to come in the days ahead.
I was in Hong Kong on a journalism program with Canadian students. Our trip coincided with the heady days leading to massive anti-extradition law protests.
Before the trip, I didn’t understand why Hong Kong residents felt so connected to events in Tiananmen Square three decades earlier.
The pro-democracy protest that was crushed by the Chinese government on June 4, 1989 took place in Beijing, some 2,000 kilometers away.
Each year, Hong Kongers fill Victoria Park for a candlelit vigil to remember the Tiananmen Square victims. Hong Kong is the only place in China where the victims are commemorated. On the mainland, all references to the event are suppressed.
This year, residents not only showed up to memorialize the victims. They also turned out in opposition to a controversial extradition bill.
“Many of my (friends) and my friends’ senior family members participated in the protest — probably their first time since 1989 — as they realize the severity of the bill and uncontrolled police brutality,” said Sing Lee, a University of Hong Kong student and protester who helped us with translation during our trip.
Fear of the mainland
On both sides of the street heading towards Victoria Park, people shouted and held anti-extradition law placards. Blood red posters featured a photo of the autonomous territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam with a yellow Communist hammer and sickle over her left eye.
Anxiety over mainland China’s growing power was palpable.
The extradition law would give China the right to bring Hong Kong residents to the mainland for trial. Opponents of the proposed law say residents would not receive a fair trial in China, where courts are under political control.
Lam had said the law was needed to close a loophole in the current system, which allows fugitives to remain in Hong Kong. But opponents said the law would suffocate democracy.
In the event, the protests attracted more than one million demonstrators, and Lam ended up backtracking. On June 15, she suspended the bill and apologised to residents.
Still, many protesters were not not satisfied with the partial victory and called for the bill to be withdrawn and for Lam to resign.
“The regime suspended the bill, but we do not trust them as they can easily resume it anytime,” Lee said.
A dim future?
At stake is the principle of “one country, two systems,” Lee explained, referring to the agreement between China and Britain that Hong Kong would be free to maintain its economic and political systems for 50 years after the handover of the British colony to China in 1997.
Before the protests broke out in Hong Kong, China’s growing power in the region was a topic of discussion at a journalism conference, N3Con, at the University of Hong Kong.
Jospeh Lian, a Hong Kong native and professor at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan, voiced concern over China’s growing influence. From 1998 to 2004, Lian was a senior policy adviser for Hong Kong’s chief executive before being dismissed for participating in a pro-democracy sit-in.
Lian said he would think twice about returning to Hong Kong if the extradition bill became law. While he has never been charged with a criminal offence, he said he could face false charges before being extradited.
Freedom of speech would be eroded, Lian said, if political dissidents were taken to China to face charges.
For now, Lee continues to join the protests, which have continued even after Lam indefinitely suspended the bill.
“I feel hope and encouragement as so many Hong Kongers are still willing to defend our civil rights and values,” he said. “Despite that, amid overwhelming and increasing Beijing interference on our autonomy since 1997, Hong Kong’s future is quite dim.”
If Lam stepped down, her successor would need Beijing’s approval. Lee said he hopes for a day when residents can freely elect a leader as stipulated in Hong Kong’s constitution. Since Britain’s handover of Hong Kong in 1997, that promise has never been fulfilled.
Karen Longwell is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She is interested in international affairs and has reported on issues in Central America and Southeast Asia. She recently joined a group of students in Hong Kong for an international journalism course. The students are producing video documentaries on cultural heritage that is disappearing in Hong Kong.