Hong Kong Activists in Exile Keep the Struggle Alive

Next week marks the 35th anniversary of the 1989 massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands, of protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square by China’s security forces. Many more people were arrested across the country.

Today, those in China attempting to commemorate the killings are ruthlessly attacked by the Chinese authorities. Public mention of the massacre is banned.

In Hong Kong, a roundup of those suspected of organizing events around June 4 has already begun. According to local media reports, six people were arrested in anticipation of protests next week, the first made under Hong Kong’s new homegrown security legislation enacted in March. Under the law, the maximum penalty for sedition was raised from two years to seven.

Police said five men and one woman — believed to be activist Chow Hang-tung, already in custody — were detained on suspicion of acting with seditious intention, including posting anonymous “seditious” posts on Facebook.

Police allege the posts made use of an “upcoming sensitive date” — meaning the Tiananmen anniversary — to incite hatred against the central and Hong Kong governments.

Hong Kong used to host annual vigils in a local park to mark the anniversary until 2020. The event was banned that year and the following year because of Covid, and there have been no official commemorations held since.

Given the enormous risks in Hong Kong of commemorating the massacre, and of staging other peaceful protests, activists from Hong Kong in exile in Europe and elsewhere are discussing what they can do to help from abroad.

Many were forced to leave Hong Kong following the widespread street protests of 2019 and 2020, which I covered for Human Rights First.

Activists have relocated across Europe and elsewhere, and last week, they organized an event in The Hague in the Netherlands exploring the uses of art as cultural resistance.

The ImagiNation: Hong Kong in Exile symposium brought together dozens of artists and other experts to discuss how Hong Kong’s identity can be preserved in exile, how activism can be expressed through art, and the cultural reshaping of Hong Kong, including by those living overseas.

I spoke about the influence of iconic international revolutionary images on Hong Kong street art, including references to Malcolm X I saw across the city in 2019 and 2020. Others explored the new Hong Kong movie scene, and how music can fuel popular resistance.

Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, creator of the iconic “Pillar of Shame” sculpture that shows a mass of deformed bodies and commemorates the Tiananmen Square massacre, recounted how the sculpture had been removed from the campus of the University of Hong Kong in December 2021.

Many of the issues discussed are familiar to activists from other countries forced into exile, including how they support the struggle from afar.

It can be done. Few victories come as quickly as Charles de Gaulle’s, whose influence on France from London and Algiers during the 1940s galvanized resistance to the Nazi occupation. More typical is the long, hard slog over decades by the anti-apartheid movement during the 1950s-1980s, where activist exiles from South Africa successfully fought to overthrow the racist regime they had left.

The Hong Kong diaspora knows it might have a long road ahead. Loretta Lau, Director of NGO DEI, which organized The Hague event, noted mounting challenges to artistic expression in Hong Kong. “This symposium represents a grave moment for Hong Kong’s artistic community. As pressures mount and self-censorship proliferates, it is imperative that we provide a platform for voices to be heard and art to flourish.”

But things can be said abroad that can no longer be said in Hong Kong. Those voices in exile must be supported to keep the memories alive of what happened in 1989, of what happened on the streets of Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, and what is happening in jails across China today.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on May 31, 2024


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