Hong Kong―Hong Kong’s youth are shunning their city’s annual Tiananmen vigil, focused on fighting their own pro-democracy battles instead of commemorating a historical atrocity against compatriots from whom they feel steadily more alienated.
Students and youngsters have been at the vanguard of democracy protests that have convulsed Hong Kong in recent years as anger rises over inequality and Beijing’s moves to chip away at the financial hub’s unique freedoms.
A vivid illustration of those freedoms has long been the annual Tiananmen vigil on June 4, an emotion-tinged spectacle where more than one hundred thousand people gather in a park holding candles.
Hong Kong is the only place inside China where public commemorations can be safely held. Yet youngsters are becoming a rarer sight.
The proportion of those attending the vigil aged under 30 dropped from 55 percent to 31 percent between 2010 and 2018, the same period the city’s youth leaders burst onto the political scene, according to a survey by local academic Edmund Cheng.
And for the last five years, the city’s main student unions have boycotted the vigil.
Many of Hong Kong’s youngsters say they feel less affinity for the Chinese mainland which they fear is subsuming their city.
The failure of the 2014 pro-democracy protests to win concessions from Beijing has hardened sentiment, pushing many to embrace “localist” ideologies that prioritize preserving Hong Kong’s Cantonese culture and freedoms -- or even advocating independence.
“Given that most people in Hong Kong identify themselves as Hong Kongers, instead of Chinese, we don’t feel the responsibility or urge to fight for democracy in China any more,” Frances Hui, a 19-year-old currently studying in the US, told AFP.
William Chan, a 21-year-old student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, sees Tiananmen as a political tragedy that happened to someone else.
“As a Hong Konger, I don’t have a strong feeling that they were my compatriots and I should feel angry for their hardship,” he said. “Instead, I view what happened as a humanitarian tragedy.”
Since 2010, the number of people identifying as “Hong Kongers” has risen from 25 to 40 percent, according to a poll carried out by the University of Hong Kong. Those calling themselves “Chinese” dropped from 28 to 15 percent.
And youngsters are more likely to hold more stridently anti-Chinese views.
Many older activists have criticized students for not showing solidarity, but some youngsters say they find the “pan-Chinese” goals of the Tiananmen vigil uncomfortable.
Organized by Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which was founded by a group of veteran campaigners, the vigil has always had the “democratization of China” and “end to one-party dictatorship” as its central messages.
“The principles, slogans and songs they sing are all from the perspective of a Chinese person... It is hard to detach the event from this identity,” Chan said.
He added that he doesn’t want to be “bound up in the fetters of Chinese identity”, but also “feels ambivalence”.
Hui was recently on the receiving end of a massive online backlash from mainland students after a column she penned for her student newspaper titled “I am from Hong Kong, not China” went viral.
Her political passions were ignited when she first attended the Tiananmen vigil aged 10.
“However, after years of attending, I felt like assembling or marching doesn’t work any more to put more pressure on the government,” she said.
That does not mean teenagers are ignoring “the terrible history of this incident”, she added, but many of her contemporaries prefer attending panel discussions and debates on June 4 instead.
Michael Mo, who identifies as “a Hong Konger first”, said he will organize a memorial gathering at the busy harbor-side Tsim Sha Tsui district.
“It’s undeniable that the Tiananmen protests sped up the pace of Hong Kong’s democratic movement before the handover and the awakening of civic awareness, but I don’t see how democratization of China would benefit Hong Kong,” said Mo, who is expecting around 200 people to join his event.
Cheng, the academic who studies the vigil crowd, says first timers have dropped while those who had joined the commemoration more than 10 times have doubled since 2010.
But he says there are still significant connections between those attending and the city’s pro-democracy protest groups.
“Most participants know that they come here not only to commemorate the crackdown victims, but also to tell everyone that Hong Kong is special,” he said.
Isaac Cheng, a 19-year-old planning to attend this year’s vigil, said it will continue to inspire people to join protest movements.
“A whole generation of Hong Kongers were inspired by the annual vigil,” he said. “That power will be passed on.”