June 4, as you might know, is the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, during which the Chinese government killed at least hundreds, and likely thousands, of its own citizens who had been peacefully calling for a variety of reforms. (The number remains unknown, and estimates range from the low hundreds up to the several thousands.)
The “June 4 incident” is a big deal in Hong Kong, the only city in China in which one can actually talk about it. If you search “Tiananmen Square” with Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, you will get no results that mention the massacre, nor any image results that show Tank Man. The government censors it diligently. Cross into Hong Kong, though, and Google.hk will turn up everything.
Look, I’ve even done the searches for you. Here’s the Google.hk results for “Tiananmen Square.”
Here’s the Baidu results for the same. You don’t need to read Chinese to see that all of the image thumbnails are pictures of buildings, or that the links show a map and just identify the square itself.
The Google.hk image search. Note the sets of “Tiananmen Square Deaths” and “Tiananmen Square Protest” at the top.
The Baidu image search:
And guess what you get if you search on Baidu for “Tiananmen Square massacre”? One result, an article in the China Daily from what we might call a Tiananmen Square “truther,” alleging that the whole thing is a myth. (Big surprise, there’s a small community of such folks out there.)
This is one of the things that put the lie to the notion that Hong Kong is part of China, or at least that it’s fully China. (For now, at least.) In fact, the Tiananmen Square massacre set off a flurry of emigration out of Hong Kong, as the Sino-British Joint Declaration that agreed to a 1997 handover of Hong Kong had already been signed (almost five years before).
Hong Kong very much values its ability to speak out about June 4, all the more so given that in China it is simply not talked about. In fact, there’s a fascinating 2006 PBS Frontline documentary called Tankman, during which some students at Peking University are shown a photo of Tankman and asked if they know what it is. Evidently they don’t know how sensitive the filmmakers’ audio equipment is, because one of them leans towards another and says “1989.” But when asked if they know what it is, all four play dumb. They say it must be some kind of staged shot, or that they have no idea what it is.
Here’s the clip. I don’t know why the narration suggests that the students genuinely don’t know what it is—the voice-over tells us that one of them says “1989,” so it is clear that they know quite well. They just aren’t saying so.
But in Hong Kong, there is no silence. On the contrary. After a huge political brouhaha, Chinese University of Hong Kong became home to the Goddess of Democracy statue, a replica of the one erected in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests.
There’s one in CityU’s main academic building too, right in front of the library.
So I decided I’d go to Hong Kong’s annual June 4 commemoration in Victoria Park, which typically draws 100,000 people or so. I headed off, knowing that it was a candlelight vigil but not really sure when things would kick off. By the time I got to Causeway Bay, though, it was clear I wasn’t too late.
So, funny thing: despite there being a rainstorm of some kind almost every day for the past two months, I—stupido! stupido!—brought neither an umbrella nor my fancy raincoat with me. Why would I have, after all, since there were totally clear skies when I left?
Imagine my delight when I got to the exit and found it downpouring. Torrentially.
Upon getting to the top of the MTR exit escalator, everyone of course froze up. Some of the better-prepared folks (i.e., 98% of the crowd) were getting umbrellas out of their bags; the other 2% were paralyzed with self-recrimination. Oh, crap! But because there were literally thousands of people coming up the same escalator, the police and MTR employees at the top were frantically forcing people to exit the station. (Imagine if twenty people all stop at the exit while dozens of others are being deposited behind them by the relentless escalator. It’d be like that famous Lucille Ball sketch with the candy assembly line, but with less “she’s eating all that candy!” hilarity and more trampled-to-death-by-crowds tragedy.)
So we were pushed out into the rain to fend for ourselves. Fortunately, I found refuge in that most ubiquitous of Hong Kong institutions, a mall.
It rained and rained. So I took some photos to pass the time.
When the rain finally let up a little, I emerged and bought an umbrella from the supermarket down the street and joined the throngs heading to Victoria Park. It was more than a little claustrophobic, since there were a jillion people, all of them carrying umbrellas. And I’m just the right amount taller than most Hong Kongers that the bottom edges of their opened umbrellas were constantly hitting me in the back of the head, as constant staring at cellphones kept everyone from watching where they were going. (Can you tell I’m reaching my breaking point with this so-frustrating HK habit?)
By the time I made it to the park the event was largely over. People were already streaming out.
And since everything was in Cantonese, and it was soaking wet and crowded, I just followed the stream of people out the other side of the park towards the next MTR station. Which was—surprise—crowded.
So when all was said and done, I had a three-hour super crowded wet walk through the park. But it was a super crowded wet walk through the park that would have been forcibly suppressed anywhere else in China, and it was a privilege to take part at all. Hong Kong loses its Special Administrative Region status in 2047 (if not sooner, given Beijing’s attempted encroachments in recent years), so I may very well be able to tell my grandchildren that I attended a peaceful public protest in China, back when there was one place that could still happen.