Echoing the worry of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Hong Kong police this year unprecedentedly banned the annual vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre on the pretext of hygiene and public safety.
A few days before, China approved national security legislation for the territory, breaking the constitutional principle of its “one country, two systems” framework.
These events are a reminder of how strongly a tyrant hates the truth.
All over the world, with a few exceptions, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is known as the bloody crackdown on a patriotic and democratic movement in China. What is less known is how deep Hong Kongers were involved in that historic moment.
The day after the Chinese authorities on May 20, 1989, declared martial law and sent troops to Tiananmen Square, activists in the then-British colony formed the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, as more than 1 million people demonstrated in spite of a typhoon.
Since then, the alliance has gained renown for organizing the annual candlelight vigil for 31 years, which is unique in the world. It also established the June 4th Museum, so far the only memorial to the martyrs of democracy in China.
In immediate response to the June 4 massacre, sympathizers of various backgrounds collaborated to build “underground railroads” to smuggle prosecuted activists out of China, with Hong Kong serving as the operational center.
The allience was an unlikely mix of pro-democracy activists, celebrities, businesspeople, Hong Kong politicians, Western diplomats and sympathetic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, as well as triad gangsters.
Code-named Operation Yellow Bird, this secret action lasted until the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and successfully rescued more than 400 dissidents under the noses of the CCP. Details of this legendary deed remain confidential to protect those involved who are still alive.
I was born in 1989, the year that marked the unsuccessful drive for democracy in China. I was in my teens when I first attended the annual vigil in Victoria Park.
Just as every year, the park was crowded with people holding candles, sitting quietly and waiting for instructions from the alliance. A respected politician, also the first chairman of the alliance, Szeto Wah (司徒華) led a chant of an older version of the “five demands”: release the dissidents, rehabilitate the 1989 pro-democracy movement, demand accountability of the June 4 massacre, end one-party dictatorship and build a democratic China.
These “five demands” sound like an admonishment of the oligarchs in Beijing, expressing a will to seek dialogue and reconciliation with the authority.
In contrast, the CCP treats June 4 as a taboo banned by its Great Firewall, and arrests civilians who dare to mourn at Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
While China behaves like a schizophrenic who denies or pretends to forget what it has done to its people on the “disappeared” date, Hong Kong is melancholic, and simply cannot let go, remaining stuck in the past in a regretful mood.
If the annual practice of collective catharsis in Victoria Park has brought any real change, it has sharpened Beijing’s repugnance toward the untamed and strengthened the identity of Hong Kongers.
After a few years absence, in 2014, I again attended the annual gathering. The event I joined was an exception to the tradition started in 1990. It took place outside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the Kowloon Peninsula, right across from Hong Kong Island where the alliance held its candlelight vigil in Victoria Park.
Those who joined the event in Kowloon, hosted by the outspoken Raymond Wong Yuk-man (黃毓民), were disappointed by the ceremonial repetition of the alliance event, where people came to sing and cry, and then entrust their democratic prospects to the then-liberal parties, which appeared to be too conservative and passive in regard to the growing aggression from the north.
It was a night marking the division between soft and hard tactics against China.
Instead of holding candles, the Kowloon party burnt the Chinese flag, showing an uncompromising attitude toward Hong Kong’s future.
The metamorphosis of the annual vigil is a microcosm of Hong Kong’s political fate. In the same year, the “Umbrella movement” broke out and bore witness to the conflict between soft reformists and hard revolutionaries.
While the Umbrella movement basically stayed within the boundary of civil disobedience, trying its best to avoid any violent confrontations with police, a significant portion of protesters challenged the leadership of pacifist liberals to escalate the protest to more forceful levels.
Efforts to “demolish the big stage,” a popular protest slogan among Hong Kong decentralization advocates, continued after bitter infighting within the Umbrella movement, which manifested itself in the leaderless revolt against the extradition bill last year.
“Be water,” the frontline protesters said, referring to the philosophy of suspending any dogma of strategy when fighting tyranny.
The “big stage” is gone. Pluralism is celebrated. This year, I went back to Victoria Park on June 4, participating in another watershed moment in Hong Kong’s history.
Due to the police’s fictitious concern over public health, for the first time the alliance could not set up its stage on site, but could only distribute candles in the streets.
Despite the event program the alliance had provided online, it was obvious that more citizens preferred their own interpretations of the vigil.
Chanting “free Hong Kong, revolution now” replaced observing a minute of silence. Groups singing The Flowers of Freedom, a song played by the alliance every year, coexisted harmoniously with parades of flags reading: “Hong Kong Independence, the only way out,” always a taboo for the Chinese democratic and patriotic movement. This was an exhibition of a new political ethos in Hong Kong, unpredictable but charming.
“No division,” “no betrayal” and “no blame” were new mottoes invented during last year’s anti-extradition bill protests, to bring together citizens of different political views after removal of leadership. In hindsight, they have also irreversibly reshaped political identities.
It has almost become a necessity for Hong Kong residents to recognize themselves either as “yellow ribbon,” symbolizing allegiance to the pro-democracy movement, or as “blue ribbon,” which shows support for the establishment.
Although these symbols have been popularized since the Umbrella movement, activists at that time were busy setting up new political parties to create their own beliefs, rendering the yellow ribbons a nominal community.
Yet, after the walls between pro-democracy parties were torn down as police violence grew seriously unchecked in the summer last year, dissenters started to identify themselves first and foremost as yellow ribbons.
Another term widely used among dissenters is “hands and feet,” a traditional metaphor for brotherhood.
In short, no matter whether someone supports Chinese rule or they fight for an independent Hong Kong, as long as they are “yellow,” they are the hands and feet. Their pain is everyone’s pain.
An interesting fact about Operation Yellow Bird comes from the mysterious origin of its name. Several mutually incompatible stories circulate about it.
Actor John Sham Kin-Fun (岑建勳), an initiator of the secret operation, once told the BBC that the name came from a Chinese proverb: “The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind.” In this case, the yellow bird refers to Hong Kongers as the predator behind one another.
Alternatively, as recalled in Szeto Wah’s autobiography, the operation was named after a Chinese poem, The Yellow Bird in the Field (野田黃雀行). The poem reads:
“The catcher, having got the bird, was overjoyed,
But a young man, seeing its plight, was grieved.
He took out his sword, and cut the net asunder,
So once again, the yellow bird could fly;
Higher and higher it flew, till it touched the sky,
Then down it came to thank the young man.”
In this case, the yellow bird refers to the political dissidents in mainland China waiting to be saved.
Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming (朱耀明) offered another explanation for the name of the operation in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
He pointed to the Haitian folk song Yellow Bird, which contains the lyrics: “You can fly away, in the sky away. You are more lucky than me.”
In this case, the yellow bird becomes a pure symbol of freedom, regardless of the predator-prey relationship.
I am already 31 years old. Time flies and things change. Chinese civilians decouple democratic demands from patriotism. Celebrities denounce the “black rioters” in Hong Kong. Triads cooperate with police to beat up protesters. The traditional free world turns a blind eye to Chinese totalitarianism.
Chu, who was convicted last year for advocating civil disobedience in 2014, admitted that it is improbable to revive Operation Yellow Bird in today’s China.
Can Hong Kong’s next generation expect another yellow bird? Or will Hong Kongers alone play the trio of victim, rescuer and icon of liberty?
Chu Ming-hon is a doctoral candidate in Germany specializing in the philosophy of consciousness.
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