“June 4th is an understandably sensitive subject, but regardless of your stance on this controversial issue, we Hongkongers should be proud that our city is the only part of China that can openly commemorate the event.” Thus says an awkwardly fence-sitting Time Out HK, nervous perhaps of the possibility of scaring advertisers with a big mainland market to develop. The magazine has its roots in late 60s/early 70s counterculture, but – like Lonely Planet, Body Shop, Ms, Rolling Stone and much else – turned joyously corporate. The Hong Kong edition is a franchise.
A more partisan approach to the anniversary of the Tiananmen-and-environs Massacre comes from Epoch Times, a publication of the quasi-Buddhist-wacko Falun Gong sect, which likes to equate its own persecution in China with Beijing’s ruthless expunging of the 1989 killings from public consciousness. Now, it implies, the same treatment is progressively unfolding in Hong Kong, where the police confiscated activists’ statues. “Hong Kong … had a democratic system under British colonial jurisdiction until 1997,” the writers lament (these people also believe they are cultivating a ‘law wheel’ in their lower abdomen).
The Royal Hong Kong Police on June 4, 1989 – as suggested in the very photos I took that day outside the Xinhua headquarters – were impeccably behaved and low profile. Since the handover in 1997, however, many people have perceived a gradual toughening. Some of this, such as the enforcement of deliberately inconvenient restrictions on marches, seems to be home-grown, grumpy intolerance, of the sort we might expect from a government that is inept, under siege and panicky, and infested with authoritarian born-again Christians.
The most attention-grabbing signs of a clampdown, however, are those where the intended audience is in Beijing. The confiscation and subsequent return of the Goddess of Democracy made the cops look clueless rather than brutal. The Immigration Department’s ritual refusal to admit sculptors of Tiananmen-related works gets the city bad press overseas. The forthcoming confrontation at Chinese University over placing one of the statues on campus leaves the school administration looking foolish, almost arguing that the institution must bar any object that displays a political bias – which surely includes newspapers, student union posters and many of the books in the library.
It is hard to believe Beijing specifically orders such actions. The almost hapless manner in which local authorities go about being tough on selected June 4 activities suggests that it is largely pre-emptive. It’s like Time Out trying to put advertisers’ minds at ease. Subliminally, we are supposed to see a cadre flicking through the Big Lychee’s English-language lifestyle glossies, looking for seditious comment which can be used to persecute multinationals that have unwittingly endorsed it by taking out a double-page spread in the same publication. But the editors used the words ‘sensitive’ and ‘controversial’, so – phew! – it’ll be OK.
The Hong Kong government clamps down on the odd statue (and turns overseas Falun Gong adherents away) because senior officials are afraid of what might happen otherwise. As pro-Beijing loyalists like to point out, ‘two systems’ can only exist within the framework of ‘one country’. The Basic Law, which defines Hong Kong’s autonomy, is a law of the PRC, not Hong Kong. So, when something hyper-sensitive crops up, like the evil cult or the unmentionable events of 1989, we have to put on the right sort of show. The trick is to make a mountain out of a borderline molehill: a statue without an entertainment licence, an overseas visitor whose presence might sort of not be conducive to the public interest. Beijing takes note, presumably. Meanwhile, the main event tonight at Victoria Park carries on. Your statutory rights are slightly screwed around with, but not that much really.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government chooses this moment to ask for your views on its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? Do you not agree, for example (para 19), that we can assure the United Nations that slavery and servitude remain illegal here?