The fog burns off to provide a dramatic view of Hong Kong
from the top of Victoria Peak. (Photo by George Rose/Getty
Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents will gather at
Victoria Park tomorrow, as they do every June 4, for a
candlelight vigil to honour those killed in 1989 at Tiananmen
It's an annual ritual of defiance against Beijing, and this
year the crowds will be larger and more militant than ever.
It's not just that this year marks the 25th anniversary of
the Tiananmen crackdown. It's the future that has Hong Kong
A British colony until 1997, when China once again assumed
sovereignty, Hong Kong is scheduled to hold its first-ever
election in 2017 to pick a chief executive, and many Hong
Kong residents are convinced that the communist government in
Beijing is seeking to rig the outcome. Polls show that young
people in Hong Kong are particularly discouraged about their
future and are increasingly willing to challenge Beijing,
even if such a confrontation could prove explosive.
"We are in the beginning phase of what could be a major
constitutional crisis," said Michael C. Davis, a law
professor at the University of Hong Kong and a longtime civic
activist. He and others fear that serious violence is
possible if the populace of semi-autonomous Hong Kong views
the 2017 election process as being dictated by the Chinese
The situation is further complicated by splits among
pro-democracy groups on what type of deal to broker with
Beijing, and when and how they should marshal protests to amp
up the pressure.
One group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, is planning an
occupation of Hong Kong's central business district, as early
as July 1, if China's leaders take steps deemed antithetical
to free and fair elections. Chan Kin-man, an academic and
co-founder of the campaign, said he's confident that "tens of
thousands of people will come out in support" of Occupy
Central if the elections process is viewed as being rigged.
Hong Kong's angst has oscillated since 1984, when Britain
agreed to grant China sovereignty over the 400-square-mile
territory, beginning in 1997. Under that agreement, China
pledged that Hong Kong would have partial political
independence under a principle that then-Chinese leader Deng
Xiaoping described as "one country, two systems."
Since then, Hong Kong has remained one of the world's busiest
ports and a crucial link for commerce and investment across
Asia. Even though it has just 7 million people, Hong Kong is
the world's eighth largest trading economy and is home to
Asia's second largest stock market, behind Tokyo. It ranks
third in the world as a recipient of direct foreign
investment, with most of it coming from China.
Hong Kong and China are joined at the hip but are worlds
apart in politics and culture. Hong Kong residents speak
Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese vastly different from the
Mandarin spoken in Beijing. They drive on the left - drivers
in mainland China drive on the right - and obey traffic laws,
something all but unheard of in Beijing. Hong Kong has its
own currency, travel documents, court system and civil
liberties, including freedoms of speech and assembly that
don't exist on the mainland.
One symbol of Hong Kong's liberties is a newly opened June 4
Museum, which recounts what happened at Tiananmen Square a
quarter-century ago, when Chinese troops stormed
pro-democracy demonstrations, killing hundreds. Curators say
they've seen 5,000 visitors since the small museum opened in
late April in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, with about half
coming from the mainland, where the topic is taboo.
The basic problem, said Alan Lung Ka-lun, is that China
doesn't understand Hong Kong's values and far too many Hong
Kong residents tend to belittle China and its leaders.
"There's been this prevailing theory here that China will
just fall apart, and we just need to hold out until then,"
said Lung Ka-lun, who chairs the Hong Kong Democratic
Foundation, a moderate think tank. "This theory is 25 years
old. We need to get over it."
Teng Biao, a mainland legal scholar and visiting professor at
the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said young people in
Hong Kong have little choice but to assert their rights to
speak out and assemble. "If they don't stand up for their
rights, they will lose them," said Teng, a Beijing lawyer who
has been detained and jailed for his activism.
When Great Britain transferred Hong Kong to mainland China in
1997, it was thought that a younger generation would slowly
start to identify with China. That hasn't happened - at least
not yet. A recent poll of more than 1,000 residents found
that people under 40 are increasingly identifying themselves
as "Hong Kongers" as opposed to "Chinese." The poll, headed
by Michael E. DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University, also
found that people under 40 were far more dissatisfied with
Hong Kong's governance than older age groups.
Lack of decent jobs is one reason for the discontent, said
Lung of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation. The city's
economy, while robust, hasn't evolved much beyond cargo,
banking and real estate, he said. With rents soaring, many
young graduates are forced to move to the United States or
elsewhere to find jobs.
"That's why it is so important we get this election right,"
Lung said. "The uncertainty must end in 2017 or Hong Kong
will not move on."