(Published in Taipei Times)
Photo credit: Studio Incendo
Echoing the worry of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, this year Hong Kong police have unprecedentedly banned the annul vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre on the pretext of hygiene and public safety. A few days in advance, China decided to implement its national security law on Hong Kong, breaking the constitutional principle of “One Country, Two Systems”. These two events remind us how strong a tyrant hates the truth.
With a few exceptions in the world, the Tiananmen Massacre is known as the bloody crackdown of a patriotic and democratic movement in China. What is less known is how deep Hong Kongers were involved in that historical moment. On the open side, right after the Chinese authority declared martial law and sent troops to the Tiananmen Square on 20th May, local activists in the then British colony formed the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China amidst a demonstration of more than one million participants during a typhoon. Since then, the Alliance has been renowned for organizing the annul candlelight vigil incessantly for thirty-one years, a unique phenomenon in the world. It has also set up the June 4th Museum, so far the only memorial to the martyrs for democracy in China.
On the hidden side, in immediate response to the massacre on 4th June, sympathizers of different backgrounds collaborated to build “underground railroads” for smuggling out fugitives on the wanted list from the Chinese soil, with Hong Kong serving as the operation centre. The team was an unlikely mix of pro-democracy activists, celebrities, businessmen, Hong Kong governors, Western diplomats, sympathetic Communist officials, as well as triad gangsters. Code-named Yellow Bird, this secret operation lasted until the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997, and in the meantime has successfully rescued more than 400 dissidents under the noses of the Chinese Communist Party. Details of this legendary deed remain confidential to protect the involved who are still alive.
I was born in 1989, the year marking the stillborn of democracy in China. It was in my teens when I first attended the annual vigil in Victoria Park. Just like how it was supposed to be every year, the park was crowded with people holding candles, sitting quietly, and waiting for the instructions from the Alliance. A respected politician, also the first chairman of the Alliance, Szeto Wah 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 4th massacre
- End one-party dictatorship
- Build a democratic China
Retrospectively speaking, these “five demands” sound like admonishing the oligarchs in Beijing – an ancient heritage of the imperial China, expressing a will to seek dialogue and reconciliation with the authority. In contrast, the Communist Party treats the date June 4th as a taboo within its firewall, and arrests civilians who dare to mourn before Tiananmen, known as the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”.
While Mainland 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 like a melancholic who simply cannot let go and remains stuck in the past with a regretful mood. If the regular practice of collective catharsis in Victoria Park has brought us any real impact, it ends up sharpening Beijing’s repugnance towards the untamed as well as strengthening the local identity of Hong Kongers.
After a few years’ absence, I attended the annual gathering again in 2014. Though, the event I joined was an exception to the tradition since 1990. It took place outside the Cultural Centre in the Kowloon Peninsula, right opposite to Hong Kong Island where the Alliance remained in charge of the candlelight vigil. Those who joined the rivalry event in Kowloon, hosted by the outspoken localist Wong Yuk-man, were disappointed by the ceremonial repetition in Victoria Park, where people came to sing and cry, and then entrusted their democratic prospect to the then liberal parties, which appeared to be too conservative and passive in regard of 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 flag of China to display an uncompromising attitude towards 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 thereby bore witness to the total 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 confrontation with police, a significant portion of dissidents challenged the leadership of pacific liberals in order to escalate the protests to more forceful levels. Efforts to “demolish the big stage”, a popular term in Hong Kong designating decentralization in protest, continued after the bitter infighting in the Umbrella Movement, which mature form manifested itself in the leaderless revolt against the extradition bill last year. “Be water”, so believed the front-line protesters, refers to the philosophy of suspending any dogma of strategy when fighting the tyranny.
The “big stage” is gone. Pluralism is celebrated. This year, I went back to Victoria Park on 4th June, participating in another watershed moment of Hong Kong’s history. Due to police’s so-called 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 programme the Alliance had prepared online, obviously 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 classic theme song played by the Alliance every year, coexisted harmoniously with parades flags reading “Hong Kong Independence, the only way out”, always a taboo for the Chinese democratic as well as patriotic movement. So I realized that I was standing in an exhibition hall of a new political ethos in Hong Kong, unpredictable but charming.
“No division”, “no betrayal” and “no blame” were new mottoes invented anonymously during last year’s Anti-Extradition Bill Protests, in order to glue citizens of different political views together after removal of leadership. In hindsight, they have also irreversibly reshaped our political identities. Nowadays it has almost become a necessity for Hong Kong residents to recognize themselves either as “yellow ribbon”, symbolizing allegiance to the pro-democracy movement, and “blue ribbon”, which shows support for the establishment. Although this pair of symbols became popularized since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, activists at that time were busy setting up new political parties to make their own stands orthodoxy, rendering the yellow ribbons a nominal community. Yet, after walls between pro-democracy parties were torn down as well as police violence grew seriously unchecked in the last summer, 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 you still support the Chinese rule or you fight for an independent Hong Kong, as long as you are “yellow”, you are my hands and my feet. Your pain is therefore my pain.
An interesting fact about Operation Yellow Bird comes to the mysterious origin of its name. Several mutually incompatible stories circulate about it. Celebrity Sham Kin-fun, an initiator of the secret operation, once told the BBC that the code 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. However, as recalled in the autobiography of Szeto Wah, the operation was in fact named after a Chinese poem, “The Yellow Bird in the Field”:
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 criminals in Mainland China as a prey waiting to be saved. Still an alternative explanation was provided by Chu Yiu-ming, a Baptist minister active in the rescue work. During an interview with the South China Morning Post, he cited the Haitian folk song “Yellow Bird”: “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.
Now I am already thirty-one 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 ralliers up. The traditional free world turns a blind eye to Chinese totalitarianism. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, who was convicted last year for advocating civil disobedience in 2014, admitted that it is improbable for Operation Yellow Bird to revive in today’s China. Can our next generation of Hong Kong expect another yellow bird? Or will Hong Kongers alone play the trio of victim, rescuer, and icon of liberty?
 Agamben, G., “L’invenzione di un’epidemia”, Quodlibet (2020, Feb 26), URL= https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia.
 For an overview of the main ideological conflicts in Hong Kong, see my previous article “The decolonization of Hong Kong” on Taipei Times (2019, Nov 26), URL=https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2019/11/26/2003726485.
 For an in-depth analysis of the significance of this slogan, see my previous article “Two slogans shape Hong Kong” on Taipei Times (2020, Jun 12), URL=https://taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2020/06/12/2003738068.
 Mok, W-Y., “Three Poems by Ts’ao Chih.” Renditions, No. 2 (Spring 1974): 50-52.
 Lam, J., “‘Operation Yellow Bird’: How Tiananmen activists fled to freedom through Hong Kong”, South China Morning Post (2014, Jan 26), URL= http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1519578/operation-yellow-bird-activists-recall-flights-freedom-through-hong.
 For a general critique of the Western world’s attitude towards Hong Kong’s current situation, see my previous article “Hong Kong at the front of a new Cold War”, Taipei Times (2019, Nov 22), URL= http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2019/11/22/2003726266.