The fourth of June events as seen from Hong Kong

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Thu, 09/16/2010 - 13:52

 I remember the day when copies of the Basic Law were made available, bilingually printed, free of charge to all, to the Hong Kong public, by their ever-conscientious Government.

There was a resounding yawn.

Like, I dare say, every other gweilo in the place, I asked my Chinese friends and colleagues if they had a copy; very few admitted to picking one up, and none to reading it apart from my friend M., who was already well on the way to completing the transition from charterered accountant to civil liberties barrister that he undertook, to the surprise of many of his friends, over a five year period. He started by taking a law degree for the fun of it and suddenly he got "hooked" on the law, finished his degree, took his bar exams, went to the Middle Temple and took up practice in Hong Kong. But, as you'll have gathered, he is a rather exceptional sort of bloke.

This marked about the high point of Sino-British agreement on the handover.

Hong Kong had had its own very emotional state funeral in 1986.

Sir Edward Youde, who had been practically commuting between Hong Kong, London and Beijing, espescially Beijing, during the drafting of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, died suddenly, of a heart attack, in Beijing, on the 5th December 1986.

His body, rather than being flown straight to London, was flown to Hong Kong and given full military honours; the nearest to a state funeral possible in Hong Kong and the only one ever to take place.

The streets were lined with mourners; it was a tremendous demonstration of public grief and public support for the line that Sir Edward had been following - he and his team had done a very good job for Hong Kong, negotiating whilst holding little more than the two of clubs but with a shrewd understanding of his opponents and with a good grasp of what could be achieved and what was needed.

He was replaced by Sir David Wilson,

another career Sinologist and diplomat.

During this period, the economy of Hong Kong began to "hollow out" and the economy of Guangdong began to take off.

Basically, people who owned factories in Hong Kong decided that they could now trust the mainland enough to start a factory there, and take advantage of the now-open border and the far lower labour costs.

The process was quite gentle at first, but it did cause some hardships, both amongst Hong Kong people who were really suited to being factory workers and who lost their jobs and amongst managers who did not care to relocate to the mainland - my friend K was one of these - he lost his job as a production manager, but did not want to be away from his wife, who had a good job in Hong Kong, so he spent his time playing the stock and real estate markets, not notably sucessfully. In the end he died of a heart attack; I think he was just bored.

However, in many respects, people of my generation look back to the eighties as a sort of golden age in Hong Kong. The social revolution that had begun under MacLehose was in full swing, people were getting quite rapidly better off and the great struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists which had divided Hong Kong people twenty years earlier had faded into the past. "Politics" in Hong Kong had come to mean voting for your District Councillor and writing to the newspapers about refuse collections and The Youth of Today.

This little page from the BBC website rings true to me:

A little later in the decade my colleague B came to work one day in an absolutely filthy temper, which was most unlike him. He came from Guangzhou; as the second son in the family and the more enterprising of the two, he had got across Daya Bay into Hong Kong, "touched base", got his ID card, learned English, gone to night school, qualified, worked afloat as a ship's electrician, he had married and, very deservedly, got a good managerial position, all the time sending money back to his family, who had a small electrical repair shop in Guangzhou.

The reason for his absolute fury was that his parents had in due course died, and his ne'er do well elder brother, having done nothing at all with his life, had inherited the shop and had just sold it for development, for more money than B had been able to save in the whole of his diligent career in the free market, hard currency, world of Hong Kong.

Things in the mainland seemed to be looking up; the once-famous Mainland TV series " He Shang" ("River Elegy") was shown on Hong Kong TV in the year that it was made, 1988.

It really began to look as if the Joint Declaration might have been a good thing; maybe Hong Kong was going to lead the rest of China into a bright new future

But the happy state of affairs changed in May and June 1989. The makers of the documentary that had been admired a year earlier were charged with subversion or escaped abroad:

The student demonstrations in Tian an Men square had been ended by the Fourth of June Events.

In order to describe the impact of the events of the 4th June 1989 on Hong Kong, I must first set the scene by describing the general scene in the spring of that year.

It was, as we all remember, the year in which an awful lot of good things happened. Gorbachev was in power in Russia, and in China the combination of Deng Xiaopeng and Zhou Zhiyang looked, to many people, not dissimilar.

Hong Kong people were following events in China closely; was Deng possibly another Gorbachev? If so, Hong Kong's future looked very bright. Maybe too good to be true? People were fascinated.

But people had really taken to this man:

Hu Yaobang, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party; a veteran of the Long March, and an ally of Deng Xiaopeng. Hu was the acceptable face of China; he looked like a liberal. Note the suit and tie, not a blue jacket, at a time when blue jackets were still the norm.

But suddenly, on the 17th January 1987, Hu resigned and "made a self criticism". He had been purged for allowing some student protests to get out of hand. He was replaced as Party Secretary by Zhou Zhiyang, another "reformer" and Li Peng, known to be a hard liner, took over Zhao's post as Premier.

Two years later, in April 1989, Hu died. He was given a state funeral, but the students in Beijing thought that not enough respect had been shown to him.

A huge crowd of students went to the Tian An Men to present a petition to Li Peng.

This sort of thing rings bells in China; the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976 and his funeral had triggered the "5th April Tian An Men Incident" in which mourners had placed wreaths round a memorial to Zhou; this was the start of the movement which had overthrown the Gang of Four and put Deng Xiaopeng and his allies in power.

Was this an attempt to overthrow Deng?


Hong Kong television had been giving regular coverage of events in China.


We saw Michail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing and noticed that the students interrupted the motorcade. I've not seen anything in print covering what Gorbachev thought during his visit.

The 4th of June was a Sunday.

I remember this very clearly because we went to bed happily enough and woke to a quieter than usual Hong Kong. Someone telephoned and said "Put the television on".

I was in Hong Kong recently and a friend recalled me ringing in to a phone in programme on English-language radio, that morning, and quoting the Declaration of Arbroath.

A demonstration was being organised and someone - from the Chamber of Commerce I think - suggested that gweilos ought to turn out too, so some of us did.

The demonstration was huge - some say 300,000 people and I can quite believe it. It was well organised and very quiet. We marched in a continous line from Statue Square to the NCNA* building and on to Victoria Park.

The overwhelming feeling was one of horror at what had happened and a feeling of hopes dashed.

Hong Kong went into deep shock, but, interestingly, there was rather little fear. I think the sheer numbers of people and the feeling of solidarity gave Hong Kong people a political confidence that they had not had before.

*New China News Agency - China's de facto consulate in Hong Kong - not actually a consulate because China did not accept the Unequal Treaties, etc etc....