Gone not forgotten: 26 years on, it is all the more important that we remember what happened in Tiananmen

An edited version was published on Independent Voices on 4 June 2015. 

As night falls, our tour bus races on to Chang’an Avenue. The streetlights are slightly dimmed and tainted yellow. Barriers are everywhere, as if this country is perpetually on guard. Despite the neon lights and buzzing nightlife, it is a stomach churning feeling as I entered the city Beijing.

I have never been to the Chinese capital before, but these surroundings paint all too familiar a picture. This is the Beijing I recognise through documentaries and history books, the Tiananmen Square I travelled to many times through word of mouth and collective memory. This is the Beijing of 1989, where the People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately murdered students who protested for democracy during that feverish season.

I am in Beijing as part of an overseas Chinese delegation, invited by the Chinese government to exchange ideas over how best to support overseas Chinese. In truth, we all know there is a wider agenda at play, the narrative of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ or ‘the China Dream’ – a phrase repeated at any given opportunity during the week-long trip, as we are showcased China’s latest innovation and most stunning sceneries.

This is President Xi JinPing’s flagship policy goal. It prioritises economic development and national strength over all other concerns, including human rights.

China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate remains imprisoned, as rights activists are accused of overthrowing the state. The students of Tiananmen fall into the trashcan of history, and June 4th (known as ‘6.4’ in Chinese) propagated as an insignificant event in the shadow of the great achievements of the Communist Party.

Almost 2,000 kilometres away from Beijing, another battle for history and memory commences.

Over half a year since the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, the only place in China where Tiananmen vigils can legally take place, splits over how best to commemorate June 4th.

The younger generation of activists, some of whom refuse to be defined as Chinese, reject their predecessor’s alignment of Hong Kong’s democratic movement with China’s, and instead see June 4th as a caution of the Chinese government’s brutality, rather than a common struggle with their mainland counterparts.

But back in mainland China, the freedom to debate how or if we should at all remember June 4th is an extravagance. In recent days, messages started flowing in on my WeChat (main social media app in China), warning people that the internet police and Baidu (China’s largest search engine) are joining hands in censorship. These messages cautioned users not to share any satirical images to avoid sanctions against individual accounts or groups.

This is the Big Brother state, only cooler and richer than George Orwell could ever envisage. Worse, people actually believe in it.

Across China, people are content with the Communist Party’s legitimacy by performance. China’s economic growth lifted millions out of poverty and put pride back in the nation’s soul. However, as the tides of nationalism sweep across history, the memory of Tiananmen is slowly fading away, before eventually being wiped out of existence altogether.

That is why, 26 years on, it is all the more important that we learn the lesson of history, and to one day fulfil the dreams of those brave souls that sacrificed in Tiananmen Square – a freer country where people can fill their stomachs as well as speak their minds, with no cruel choice presented between the two.

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Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution might be over, but it doesn’t matter — the pro-democracy movement will only come back stronger

Published on Independent Voices on 15 December 2014.

The moment bailiffs started removing the barricades in Hong Kong’s occupied financial district, the Umbrella Revolution seemingly drew to a final close.

This was not the anticipated ending. When tear gas fogged the sky over Hong Kong in late September, politicians and protesters alike feared a Tiananmen-style crackdown, with the People’s Liberation Army ordering in their tanks. Or when the “counter-revolution” of pro-China gangs attacked and intimidated students, commentators speculated if the movement would be broken up by violence. Neither has happened.

Ironically, the movement was halted by what was its greatest strength – spontaneity. The moment students suddenly broke into the area outside government headquarters, the movement was destined to be defined by it. The willpower of individual protesters survived the infiltration and attacks from police, gangs and counterdemonstrations.

Yet without a unifying figure or strategy, the movement could go only so far. The occupy campaign camp to be perceived as too conservative and ineffective, especially by more radical factions. “[It] needs to be taken to a new level,” Wong Yeung-tat, the leader of Civic Passion, told The New York Times. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable.”

Groups such as Civic Passion are much more openly anti-China. They speak the language of “autonomy” and “deciding our own fate”. They are confrontational and refuse to surrender to the police. And while they are far from representing mainstream public opinions, they have galvanised more clout and sympathy during the past two months than ever before.

This presents Beijing with a bigger problem than the one they feared. Before they vetted political candidates in August, the Chinese government faced a harmless minority of moderates, who espoused upon the ideals of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Now they face far more anti-authoritarian and uncompromising groups, whose ideologies are more akin to Malcolm X than Dr. King.

But the Communist Party is not the only loser. The police force in Hong Kong, long hailed as one of the best in the world (presiding over very low crime rate), are facing its toughest time in terms of citizen-police relations. While it took less than a day to reopen the roads, it will take much longer than that to wash away the horrific images of plainclothes policemen dragging a protester to a corner to beat him up, not to mention police hitting protesters with batons, pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately – all alien to this city of stability.

There is also an unexpected guest on the list of losers. David Cameron was criticised by MPs for being “weak” over China’s ban on MPs to investigate how the protests were being handled. Under the Joint Declaration, Britain is the only guarantor Hong Kong has if China breaks its promise over democratisation and autonomy. Now that the worst case scenario has become reality, however, Downing Street has done next to nothing.

Although the occupations have now concluded, we certainly haven’t seen the last of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Banners and signs saying “We will be back” were left behind by protesters. And when they return, it will be a new generation of youngsters, battle-hardened, uncompromising, and determined to put everything on the line for the sake of their future.

I recently spoke with someone who had stayed on the frontline. I asked them if the movement was too fragile, and what more can be done. “Worry not,” she said. “Hope lies not with us, but with these kids in school uniform. When they grow up, democracy will come to our city.”

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Britain needs a Hong Kong policy

Published on Progress on 5 December 2014.

Seldom is Westminster this united. This week, as China threatens to bar British members of parliament from Hong Kong, parliamentarians condemn China in unison and urge the United Kingdom government to show more strength over Hong Kong’s democratic demands.

‘If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.’ Richard Ottaway, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, took aim at Beijing. The flame of fury burns across the political divide. China has ‘reneged’ on its commitments and ‘there is no other way of putting it’ said Tory John Baron, as Labour’s Mike Gapes mocked the Communist party for being ‘afraid’ ‘nervous’ and ‘worried’ over the MPs’ visit.

MPs are angry because this is not the first time China has insulted Britain recently. A week ago, China refused MP Richard Graham’s request for a visa over his unflinching support for the Umbrella Movement, forcing the cross-party delegation to abort their business trip. Even before the protests, China humiliated parliament by demanding MPs to halt their current review into post-handover Hong Kong, interfering in Britain’s ‘internal affairs’ – a phrase often used by Beijing to rebut criticisms by the west.

What are actually internal affairs of Hong Kong, however, are suffering from heavy interventions by China. Beijing barring MPs’ entry into Hong Kong illustrates once again the erosion of the city’s autonomy is not abating. As Ottaway stated, ‘immigration is a devolved matter … it’s not for China to ban them.’

China has, in effect, unilaterally declared the death of a solemn agreement it signed with Britain. As Chris Patten explained to the committee, whereas before 1997 Britain was obliged to China for a stable and peaceful handover, after this date ‘the obligations are now from China towards the UK’ on ensuring the completion of democratisation.

We need a Hong Kong policy, separate from our China policy. It must be clear and consistent in recognising Hong Kong’s unique status under the joint declaration. After all, Britain has an agreement with China over Hong Kong only, not Tibet or Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special case, where British interest does not amount to ‘interference’.

If David Cameron fails to deliver this policy, we should start thinking about this in the Labour party.

Hong Kong has been an awkward territory for Labour. It was Margaret Thatcher who signed the joint declaration, John Major who vowed to honour it, and Patten who threw himself into a tug of war with the Chinese for democratic progress in Hong Kong, of which many Hongkongers are still very grateful for.

For too long, we have turned a blind eye on China’s subversion of Hong Kong, as Labour ministers went along with Foreign Office officials’ strategy of avoiding conflicts with China at all cost. We, the party for the working people, should have been the first to denounce Beijing’s crony capitalism and the denial of Hong Kong people’s democratic rights.

We should also be creative in our foreign policy. For instance, why not get our message across via the European Union? As Tony Blair has repeatedly argued, ‘the rationale for Europe today is power.’ Surely we should leverage this power over an issue of this importance, and seek strength in our European allies?

Either way, Britain has a right and a responsibility to defend the seven million people it handed to China in 1997. Seventeen years on, with China breaking its promises, it is about time we remind ourselves of these obligations.

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Hong Kong Protests: As long as China keeps the door to democracy closed – the umbrellas will stay open

Published on Independent Voices on 16th October 2014.

After being filled with tear gas, the air briefly cleared in Hong Kong two weeks ago, when the government accepted students’ offer to engage in dialogue. The Umbrella Revolution was on course to a peaceful closure.

Then came the counter-revolution. Pro-China crowds, including thugs with criminal records, attacked protesters in an organised manner. Shameful police collaboration with these gangs further inflamed public outrage. They casually released suspects, even escorted some to public transport.

Subsequently, talks with the government were halted. But masked mobs continued to dismantle protesters’ barricades, some with knives in their hands. Hard won confidence in the police built over decades evaporated overnight. And the conclusion to this chapter of the former British colony’s history is nowhere in sight.

The Umbrella Revolution can only end with a political solution, for this is a political problem. Beijing wants to impose Iranian style democracy in Hong Kong. Hongkongers want real democracy and genuine universal suffrage. The government in Hong Kong has rejected dialogue and resorted to force. Force may move barricades, but it will not kill the people’s desire for democracy. Ultimately, it is Beijing’s call to make. So long as the Chinese government vows to keep the election process closed, umbrellas on the streets of Hong Kong will stay defiantly open.

This is also above politics, as Hong Kong faces an unprecedented human rights crisis. Attacks orchestrated by thugs and police have thrown Hong Kong into disarray. Just this week, a protester was attacked by six plainclothes policemen, who carried him into a dark corner where he was punched and kicked repeatedly.

“It is stomach-churning to think there are Hong Kong police officers that feel they are above the law,” said Amnesty International. The self-censorship of this story by Hong Kong’s largest TV network resulted in an open letter signed by its journalists, criticising the management’s interference of editorial independence.

From freedom of the press to protest, Hong Kong is rapidly being remade in the image of the Motherland’s authoritarianism. This is not the Hong Kong Britain handed over to China in 1997.

It’s ironic that the hacktivist group Anonymous has done more to defend Hong Kong’s freedom than democratic governments, by shutting down Chinese government’s websites and leaking their data online.

While no sane citizen would antagonise China unnecessarily, it is equally true that those with democratic mandate are subjected to public pressure. David Cameron, for instance, has incrementally moved from being “concerned” to saying we should “stand up” for voting rights in Hong Kong, which is a long way from the Foreign Office’s endorsement of Beijing’s decision to vet candidates in September.

The moral of the story is that political dynamics change. The idea ofOccupy Central was ridiculed as wishful thinking in the face of the mighty Communist Party. But ordinary citizens of Hong Kong exceeded expectations by spontaneously forming a mass movement without “leaders” or command and control.

They further amazed the world with their peaceful manner ofprotest.Where else in the world would you find over 50,000 protesters without a car overturned or a shop set on fire? Sceptics told them this was impossible, and Hongkongers proved them wrong. Now these same sceptics are calling demands for democracy idealistic and call for immediate withdrawal. They will be proved wrong once again.

The Umbrella Revolution is an ongoing operation. It will end when democracy and freedom finally prevail in Hong Kong.

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Pro-Umbrella or not, we should condemn human rights violations in Hong Kong

Published on Backbench on 10th October 2014.

In Hong Kong, the date ‘28th September 2014’ will forever be remembered as the day the Umbrella Revolution began. Yet as we approach the end of the second week for the movement, the question now is: how does this come to an end?

“On the basis of ‘one country, two systems’, the problem must be solved locally and politically.” That was part of the negotiation offer made by the Hong Kong Federation of Students last Thursday, in response to the government’s erroneous attempt to pit police against protesters, using force to end a political problem. The prospect of a peaceful end to the Umbrella upheaval seemed likely again.

However, when pro-Beijing mobs crashed into one of the occupied spots, instead of ordering the police to act, the city’s leader – CY Leung – seized this opportunity to call for the protesters to leave. Unlike the earlier snap response by Hong Kong police, readily engaging protesters with pepper spray and tear gas, there was no anti-riot police present to protect protesters, including school children in uniform. There is evenfootage of policemen escorting members of mobs and send them off on taxi.

This is extraordinary for Hong Kong, a city that battled with triads and police corruption when under British rule. A city that caused the establishment of the ICAC, which is famous for making Hong Kong one of the least corrupt cities in the world. This well managed reputation was shattered yesterday, when Russian skinheads-style violence was introduced to the Pearl of the Orient. By any country’s standards, this is a human rights crisis. As Amnesty International made clear, “Hong Kong’s police failed in their duty to protect the demonstrators. Women and girls were among those targeted, including incidents of sexual assault, harassment and intimidation.”

This is no longer a matter of “China’s internal affairs” – as the country’s foreign minister put it in Washington earlier last week. The international community should show the same concern it did with beaten up Tibetan monks, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu XiaoBo, as well as it with human rights abuse from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to Putin’s persecution of the LGBT activists in Russia.

We must also reject the misguided colonial apologists. One of whom is the author Martin Jacques, who argued recently that “there is no alternative: China is Hong Kong’s future.” Jacques disregarded turned a blind eye on the fact that Beijing will be able to vet candidates at present and in the future, and instead chose to focus on the past – that Britain never allowed democracy in Hong Kong. “Although Hong Kong came, over time, to enjoy the rule of law and the right to protest, under the British it never enjoyed even a semblance of democracy.” Jacques went on to blame the “much larger group (than what he called anti-Beijing democrats), among them many students, who oppose Beijing’s plans for more idealistic reasons.

Many outsiders who are less well-informed on Hong Kong’s history would fall for Jacques’s fallacy. Yet given a careful second thought, anyone can see Mr Jacques’ ‘peculiar’ argument defies logic. How can we justify colonial injustice in the past with Chinese quasi-colonial injustice at present? Have we forgotten about the basis for Hong Kong’s handover in the first place – democratisation and the protection of its way of life? When we criticise the ‘idealists’ and ‘radicals’ in the crowd, shouldn’t we remember it was the students initiated the dialogue first, only to halt the channel when police refused to protect protesters?

As I emphasised on BBC West Midlands (from 34:28 onwards), Hongkongers seek real democracy and genuine universal suffrage – basic human rights. Democracy was promised in the first place because Hongkongers believed it is the safeguard to our liberties. This has been highlighted by the violence by both the police and the mob on peaceful protesters. Without the right to genuine universal suffrage, come another Beijing-vetted administration, Hong Kong’s liberties will continue to be lost in the name of national security and patriotism.

The world can no longer stay silent. Whether you support the Umbrella Revolution or not, whether you think this is China’s internal business or not, so long as you believe in the freedom from fear, you should condemn the naked violence we have seen this week. The protests will only end when violence ceases. The movement will only end when there is a political solution, for this is a political problem.

But one thing is for sure: this will not end with mobs harassing young men and women. And this will not end unless Beijing begins to soften its stance.

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[MEDIA] My interview with BBC WM regarding the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong

Please listen to my interview with BBC WM here. Listen in at 34:28.

Sorry if I appeared nervous, I lack experience in this. But it’s really importance to our cause. So here is my shoutout to all overseas Hongkongers:

Keep taking our case to the local media, be they regional or national. Hong Kong needs international support, and we should put every effort into this despite the slim prospect. Thank you, and fight on.

Again, the link here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026yfw7

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And then I thought of Admiralty

We are all Hongkongers tonight. We should all care about the brave men and women fighting for freedom in Hong Kong

An edited version was published on Independent Voices on 29th September 2014.

This weekend, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Hong Kong were dispersed by the city’s police force on an unprecedented scale.

This is not the Hong Kong Britain handed over to China in 1997.

In August, Beijing ruled that Hong Kong, after 17 years’ long wait, will only be able to participate in Iranian-style democracy. Occupy Central, a campaign group aiming to blockade the financial district, reacted immediately by declaring waves of civil disobedience action. But it was last week’s student class boycott that fast-forwarded history. Students entered the public space outside government headquarters (not offices, contrary to certain reports) and prompted citizens to assemble and pressure the police when the students were surrounded and detained. As more and more Hongkongers answered calls for help outside Government headquarters, resulting in a panicked police response.

When I wrote in July and again in August criticising Beijing’s reckless and irresponsible behaviour, I anticipated the Chinese government in an uncompromising mood. ‘The bureaucrats in Beijing will not be moved one iota by civilian casualties, as the world discovered in 1989.’ However, I did not foresee Hong Kong Police falling into the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army and facilitating violence on their behalf. The current government, furthermore, is notorious for its slavish loyalty to Beijing. Hong Kong was pushed into a corner, which was why I called for Britain’s urgent mobilisation of the international community.

To be clear, this is first and foremost Hongkongers’ fight. But we cannot let them fight alone. No, this is not the warzone of Iraq and Syria. Instead, this is a people from a world class city who frankly for the better part of its history had been keener on capitalism rather than democracy. This is a people who were promised rights then got them violently striped away, and then disgracefully characterised as rioters. This is a people who are fighting with their last breathe against the bureaucrats in Beijing – the dragon the world dared not to offend. This is a people defending their way of life. This is a people that are friends of Britain in values and companions in history. How can we leave Hong Kong to rot in the hands of China?

‘But what can we do?’ You ask. You might be the retired Durham miner with no mine to work in, you might be the staunch Thatcherite in Birmingham for the Conservative conference, or you might not even care about politics. It doesn’t matter. You can start with signing this petition to ask the Foreign Ministry to respond to the current crisis. You can sign up to this event on Facebook pleading David Cameron and Phillip Hammond to address this issue in their conference speeches. Pick up a yellow ribbon and tell people why you are wearing it. You can join groups for direct action on social media across the UK, from London to Glasgow, organised by volunteers moved by Hongkongers’ resolute spirit.

Together, we will change the course of events, as the brave men and women in Hong Kong had begun to do.

After a tiring day of stressful news, I was mind blanked and zoned out as I headed down the tube. The train passed Holborn, where the red Central line and blue Piccadilly cross. I was reminded of Admiralty, Hong Kong, where two train lines, incidentally also blue and red, cross. I thought of those volunteers streaming into Admiralty to protect protesters at the frontline, disregarding their own safety. I thought of those who organised themselves, not under any political banner, but in the name of Hong Kong and a citizen of the city we call home. I thought of those who pleaded the police to stop the use of force, reducing themselves to tears when chanting ‘you guys are Hongkongers too!’

I wanted let my guard down and let my tears out. But then I remembered Admiralty. I remembered the students and teacher, parents and children, bosses and workers, braving tear gas and lifting each other up. Still, ever so willing to remain non-violent. Their only defence are the umbrellas in their hands to shield excessive use of pepper spray, and quick feet to dodge rounds of rubber bullets. Their most effective offense is their chanting and singing voice, and the tears in their eyes. These tears were not caused by tear gas. They were caused by broken hearts.

Tonight, we are all Hongkongers. And together, we will win.

Noah Sin

London, 29th September 2014