‘The Darkest Time Is To Come’Veteran Activist Sees Bleak Future Ahead for Hong Kong
In an exclusive interview with Byline Times, Lee-Cheuk Yan discusses comparisons between the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 and recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and its future under Beijing’s National Security Law
Democracy is the dream for Lee Cheuk-Yan.
The veteran activist was in his early 30s when tanks rolled into Beijing following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Lee had been part of social movements in Hong Kong, then under British colonial rule, but had made it his responsibility to travel to the Chinese capital to support the student-led democracy movement.
“When I was young, my focus was on changing China,” Lee said told Byline Times.
In China’s post-Chairman Mao era, calls were growing for democratic and economic reforms. Demonstrations were gathering pace and a million people took to the streets of Beijing.
In Hong Kong, Lee collected donations from the ‘Concert of Democracy in China’ in efforts to support the movement. Things were coming together as people were “sacrificing themselves”, as Lee put it. “We founded the Hong Kong Alliance and we got $22 million, so what do we do? Get the money to Beijing.”
He took the donations to China himself and ended up actively organising marches. “It was so emotional and passionate inside China,” he said. “To see the students coming out, it was really encouraging and hopeful and it seemed we finally made it. Finally, China can make it.”
But, as the protests appeared unabated, the mood rapidly changed as the Chinese Government declared martial law.
Gunshots and Despair
Lee was in a Workers Union tent on 4 June 1989 when he was told to leave because China’s Peoples Liberation Army was coming.
“In the morning, you saw the bodies transported by tricycles and bicycles,” he recalled. “In the hospital were many atrocities, injury or death, and then it was really despair. Whole streets were empty, apart from the bicycles going by, then you would hear some gunshots periodically. It was like the city was dead.”
To this day, the total number of people who died has never been confirmed. As the demonstrations were crushed, many began leaving the city, including Lee.
But, as he reached the airport, things changed. The authorities detained him while he was waiting on the plane that would have flown him back to Hong Kong.
He was then interrogated and eventually signed a confession of wrongdoing for his release.
“There was a lot of outcry in Hong Kong,” he said. “Martin Lee, who was vice-chair of the democratic organisation, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, went to see the British Governor who said, unless I have a telex from Margaret Thatcher for my release, I could not go.”
After three days, he was released and Lee returned to Hong Kong. But the bloody crackdown in Beijing had made its mark. The Communist Party ruthlessly clamped down on political expression – and continues to be feared today.
A ‘Dark Age’ in Hong Kong
Thirty years after the events in Beijing, protests erupted again in 2019 – this time in Hong Kong over the imposition of a controversial extradition bill.
Over time, they evolved into calls for universal suffrage and police accountability. Protest leaders claim that, at the movement’s height on 18 August 2019, 1.7 million people turned out on the streets of Hong Kong.
“We had the same thing back in 1989,” Lee told Byline Times. “The people had the same passion, but then anger was directed against the Chinese Government. With this one, it’s against the Hong Kong Government.”
As last year’s demonstrations turned violent, many wondered whether there would be a repeat of Tiananmen Square with the PLA intervening. But, according to Lee, the Chinese President Xi Jinping is concerned with his image and “didn’t want blood on his hands”.
“Turning the police into suppression machinery, Xi doesn’t need the army in,” Lee said. “The police are now the army, you can look at it this way.”
The Hong Kong Police have come under intense scrutiny for their actions over the past 18 months. In an effort to curtail the demonstrations, thousands of rounds of tear gas have been fired at protestors, as well as rubber bullets and water cannons, leading critics to condemn the force for heavy-handed tactics. This has been coupled with the arrest of tens of thousands of people since June 2019.
The police are now enforcing the unpopular National Security Law, which prohibits secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism. Since the law was enacted, politicians, activists, journalists and protestors have been arrested, jailed or fled into exile. But Lee insists that Beijing’s retaliation “has not finished”.
“They will try criminalising all the leaders,” he said. “People don’t want to get arrested and spend years in jail – there will be a period of time we will try to seek peaceful and lawful protests, but I don’t think the police, even after the pandemic, will approve large-scale protests.
“But there will come a point after some time when ‘enough is enough’. The crisis will explode and that will be another movement that sparks another protest. But it’s really a dark age now.”
The End of the Rule of Law
In November, the Hong Kong Government disqualified four law-makers who it deemed a threat to national security following new powers provided by Beijing. This prompted the remaining 15 pro-democracy members to resign in solidarity – leaving the future of the the city’s Legislative Council uncertain.
As the National Security Law allows Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to appoint designated judges to hear national security cases, there are also growing concerns about the independence of the judiciary.
Jail terms have already been handed out to prominent activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam for unlawful assembly, while media tycoon Jimmy Lai is back in jail after being charged under the National Security Law for foreign collusion.
Although he has never been to jail, Lee believes he is likely to be behind bars at some point. He has nine outstanding charges, including four for illegal assembly. “I have been arrested quite some times, but I think it’s very difficult not to go to jail this time,” he told Byline Times.
“We still have to go through the darkest time. Those who stand up for democracy will be under threat. It will be like peeling an onion, one by one, to destroy dissidents.”