Page last updated at 23:23 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 00:23 UK

HK students debate Tiananmen legacy

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Hong Kong

Candlelight vigil, Victoria Park, Hong Kong, 4 June 2008
Hong Kong is the only place under Chinese rule to mourn 4 June 1989

Patra Li Yim-tung was a newborn when Chinese students were camping out for democracy on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and were crushed by the tanks of the People's Liberation Army.

Now a journalism student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the 20-year-old believes her generation should know and care about the events of 1989.

"We found we were not familiar with what happened and many others did not know either, and we wanted to arouse their consciousness," she said.

As a vice chairperson of the university's Social Sciences Society, she helped organise an exhibition on campus featuring a series of panels explaining what led up to 4 June violence, and its aftermath.

For many older residents in Hong Kong, the narrative is well known: the death of the reformist Chinese communist leader, Hu Yaobang, sparked emotional memorials to him and to the idea of reform.

Banner, students, Tiananmen Square 1989
Students gathered on Tiananmen Square in 1989 on Hu Yaobang's death

Against a backdrop of political turmoil as communism fell across a swathe of Europe, Chinese students began camping out on Tiananmen Square.

Students went on hunger strike, demanding dialogue with communist party leaders about reform. Some believed they could change the world, according to certain accounts.

Then on the night of 3 June and into dawn on 4 June, tanks rolled in to the city and soldiers killed at least several hundred unarmed civiians - the exact figure remains unknown.

Contrary to popular short-hand, the massacre did not take place primarily on Tiananmen Square but in the approach roads in western Beijing.

A man tries to stop Chinese tanks in 1989
Suppression of the Tiananmen protests sparked worldwide anger

The protest camp was not comprised solely of students either. Workers' groups were part of the movement from its inception and several witnesses and analysts argue that the resulting crackdown was sparked by the ruling party's fears of a workers' uprising.

Contributing to the haziness of records has been the official attitude to the events - to deny they happened and, nowadays, to say history will judge.

However, activists in China, Hong Kong and elsewhere believe a proper accounting of what happened and who was killed still needs to be done.


That is why Patra Li's exhibition was so closely watched on a campus where students from mainland China now mix with Hong Kongers and others.

"The mainland students were very curious about it and they really looked in detail, they were reading it word by word," said Ms Li.

This is a strong public outcry among students in Hong Kong for the Chinese government to be held accountable
Vincent Fok, council chairman of the HKU students' union

For herself, she said she felt great empathy for the students of 20 years ago.

"They really tried their best to help their country but they were treated very badly and some were shot. I get kind of angry with the government for that - we shouldn't forget these things," she said.

Students at HKU are determined the events won't be forgotten.

More than 90% of those who voted in a recent student union poll agreed that the Chinese government should "vindicate" the democracy movement.

The students want Beijing to reverse its verdict that the movement was "counter-revolutionary".

"This is a strong public outcry among students in Hong Kong for the Chinese government to be held accountable," said Vincent Fok, council chairman of the HKU students' union.

No confidence

The debates have stirred controversy for weeks now.

Over at City University in Hong Kong, the student union's initial decision not to take part in 20th anniversary events being planned for June this year was strongly attacked.

Pillar of Shame, HKU campus, commemorates victims of 4 June 1989
Hong Kong university students are debating what happened 20 years ago

It had said the events of 1989 were of little relevance, but has since back-tracked and decided to publish a booklet about the Tiananmen Square protests.

At HKU, the student union leader, Ayo Chan Yi-ngok, shocked his colleagues when he said the whole event could have been resolved peacefully in 1989 if the students had not behaved irrationally.

The condemnations have come in hard and fast. Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong released a statement saying the head of the HKU union "spoke for slaughterers".

At HKU, activist student Christina Chan, who wrapped herself in a Tibetan flag when China's Olympic Torch relay came to Hong Kong last May, has taken steps to depose Ayo Chan (who is no relation).

Hong Kong's role

The level of activism has surprised some observers who have noted that Hong Kong schools do not teach recent Chinese history.

Parents and grandparents who fled to Hong Kong from political and economic trauma on the mainland have not often wanted to re-visit the past.

Chinese police patrol on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, Mar 09
Chinese police patrol regularly on Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Yet Hong Kong's separate history as a British colony with a tradition of freedoms unknown on the mainland has given it a special place in the debate.

Andrew To, now a vice chairman of the League of Social Democrats, a feisty pro-democracy political party here, was head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students in 1989.

He went to Tiananmen Square to express solidarity with the movement, organised sympathy hunger strikes and marches back in Hong Kong, and has been a leading member of the Hong Kong Alliance In Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China ever since.

This alliance organises the annual commemorations of the Tiananmen events in Hong Kong every year and believes 1989 matters.

"This was the first time Hong Kong people were concerned about the future of China and of democracy in China. They knew today's China would be the future of Hong Kong," he said.

That concern remains real in Hong Kong today and if recent events on campus are any guide, the concern could be multi-generational.

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