June 3, 2009
By Craig Stephen
The Commentary: For China's free port, democracy is a constant desire.
HONG KONG -- For Hong Kong, the student democracy protests at Tiananmen Square will always be etched in its collective psyche, coming at such a pivotal moment in the city's history.
Twenty years ago, the massacre of student protestors inflamed the worst fears of the capitalist free port, still struggling to come to terms with a transfer of its sovereignty to Communist China.
Like an orphaned and unwanted child, Hong Kong was to be given back to China in a little over eight years by its British colonial masters. The only protection for its new life ahead lay in a piece of paper called the Basic Law, promising to leave everything the same for 50 years.
But as the tanks of the People's Liberation Army rolled down Beijing's Tiananmen Square, might their next stop be Kowloon's Nathan Road?
Many Hong Kongers decided it best not to wait to find out and emigrated. The Hang Seng Index suffered too, as blue-chip trading house Jardine Matheson took its various listings to Singapore.
Of course, these worst fears have not been realized. Hong Kong has prospered as China plunged headlong into an embrace of its self-styled brand of capitalism. Today, no one gives a second thought to Jardine, with the market dominated by giant mainland Chinese companies. By and large, the essence of the freewheeling city-state remains intact.
That said, underlying tensions between Hong Kong and its authoritarian parent periodically come to the surface.
For instance, in 2003, the government had to pull an anti-subversion bill after large protests.
For all China's economic progress, the Communist Party has shown few signs of dismantling the one-party state and its vice-like grip on the media. In fact, in the run-up to the June 4th Tiananmen anniversary, Beijing has imposed an unprecedented crackdown on all media -- from blogs and message boards to foreign news services. It's unlikely this article will make it over the Great Firewall of China.
This makes the June 4th candlelight vigil held in Hong Kong all the more poignant -- this is the only place in China such a protest can be held.
While this no doubt annoys Beijing immensely, it's important these freedoms are not eroded.
Recent remarks by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang gave cause for concern: When asked if he supported a vindication of the students involved in the Tiananmen protests, he spoke only of China's accomplishments since then. He then provoked public outrage by saying he spoke for the Hong Kong people.
The irony, of course, is that Hong Kong people do not have a voice. Tsang was not elected by them. One of the biggest frustrations since the handover has been Beijing's unwillingness to allow progress towards democracy in the city.
Hong Kong is grown up, and people here, like in other international capitals, want to think for themselves.
Tsang's ill-considered remarks probably display an inevitable tendency among Hong Kong's political class not to anger Beijing. At least he ensured a record turn-out for the June 4th candlelight vigil, so Tiananmen will not be forgotten in Hong Kong.