They all played a part in remaking Hong Kong to the Chinese government’s liking: a pro-Beijing politician who voted to gut the city’s last remaining free elections; a former mayor on a crusade against a popular pro-democracy newspaper; a lawmaker heading the Hong Kong delegation to Beijing’s rubber-stamp parliament.
But 32 years ago, they all joined a chorus of voices against the ruling Communist Party’s bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, killing an estimated hundreds of civilians in central Beijing.
The student-led protests in 1989 triggered an outpouring of sympathy in the then-British colony, eight years before it would be handed over to Chinese rule. Days before the People’s Liberation Army violently ended the weekslong demonstrations in the Chinese capital, Hong Kongers took to the streets, signed petitions, and joined a star-studded fundraising concert to show their support for a democratic China.
However, some of the staunch democracy supporters back then, including politicians, business executives, and entertainment stars, have come to side with the Chinese leadership’s actions, including their clampdown on Hong Kong’s own pro-democracy movement many years later.
The transformation of their views underscores the success of the Communist Party in turning its critics into supporters in part by welcoming Hong Kong’s elites into the establishment and justifying the brutal suppression of dissent with China’s economic achievements.
A day after tanks rolled in to crush the protests in central Beijing, Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong lawmaker in 1989, said he “strongly condemned Beijing’s bloody crackdown on the students and the people.” Tam also called on Hong Kongers to unite and think about how to push China “onto a path of democracy and progress.”
Tam would later come to lead the city’s biggest pro-Beijing party. In March, he voted alongside other 166 officials in Beijing to reduce democratic representation in Hong Kong institutions.
Days before Hong Kong activists were set to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on Friday, Tam said slogans against the Communist Party’s rule should be banned, and warned people against violating a Beijing-imposed national security law.
With records of the Tiananmen Square movement wiped out from mass media in mainland China, most former protesters, many of them state employees, have chosen to stay silent, and some sought to justify the crackdown with the economic boom in the three decades that followed. The party’s tight control on the media and the internet means the Chinese public has never been able to freely discuss the events of 1989, let alone seek accountability.
In Hong Kong, the June 4 crackdown prompted outrage and widespread worries about the city’s future as a semi-autonomous region in China, causing a wave of immigration out of the city to places like Canada, Australia, and the United States. But after 1997, as economic integration between the city and the mainland accelerated, some supporters of the pro-democracy movement opted to join the establishment.
“At that time, I might have had some passion-driven thoughts and reactions, and made one-sided judgements,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Tse Wai-chun told local news outlet Stand News recently, when he was asked about his participation in a pro-democracy petition in 1989.
“Now they need to be corrected,” he said, adding that protesters were acting violently toward the soldiers sent to crack down on the movement. “If the military were to strike back, it was necessary, because it was a way to protect themselves and the country.”
Ma Fung-kwok, another pro-Beijing lawmaker and the leader of Hong Kong’s delegation to the Chinese National People’s Congress, told Stand News he had “naively” supported the pro-democracy movement in 1989 and he later believed that “external forces” were involved in the protests. Beijing has often sought to discredit mass movements by alleging U.S. involvement.
Hong Kong’s former leader, Leung Chun-ying, also signed a petition condemning the Communist Party in the wake of the crackdown in 1989, but had avoided directly commenting on the history since he became the chief executive in 2012. Leung’s office did not respond to a request for comments.
And actor Jackie Chan, who performed at the fund-raising concert for the student protests in 1989, later earned a seat in the Chinese government’s top advisory body.
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader at the 1989 protests, said many former protesters and their supporters, both in China and abroad, have later sought to distance themselves from the pro-democracy movement.
“The democratic world has come to embrace China after the June 4 massacre. Through trade and digital dictatorship, Beijing is able to exert growing influence around the world,” said Zhou, who now lives in exile in the United States. “It’s not surprising most people would give up their consciousness for personal gains.”
When asked about the crackdown on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the Chinese government has made its judgment on the “political upheaval.”
“The great achievement made by the new China since its founding more than 70 years ago fully proves that the development path China has chosen is completely correct,” he said.
Although pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong had withdrawn their support for the Tiananmen Square protests, public opinion polls suggest a majority of Hong Kongers still sympathize with the student protesters. Every year on June 4, people join a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park, the only public commemoration allowed on Chinese soil.
But once seen as a place that would promote democratic values across China, Hong Kong’s democracy activists are now struggling to preserve the dwindling civil freedoms in their own city.
Following the 2019 anti-government protests, authorities rounded up the bulk of the city’s opposition leaders and imposed a national security law that puts long jail terms on acts of subversion.
Prominent protesters, including Joshua Wong, were jailed for defying a police ban to join the June 4 candlelight vigil in 2020. This year, Hong Kong authorities again cited COVID-19 restrictions to ban the symbolic gathering. The police will deploy reportedly 7,000 police officers across the city to prevent anyone from gathering on the anniversary to mourn those killed in Beijing 32 years ago—and the loss of their own freedoms.
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