Hong Kong’s June 4 vigil: What did the ‘student boycott’ achieve?

Candle-light vigil in Hong Kong on June 4.

Yet again Hong Kong organised a powerful act of defiance on 1989 massacre anniversary

Vincent Kolo, Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong)

Around 115,000 people, Hong Kongers plus thousands of mainland visitors, turned out for this year’s June 4 commemoration in Hong Kong. This was an increase on last year’s attendance, confounding the expectations of the pro-Beijing establishment.

The mass gathering is a powerful act of defiance. Not only do the people of Hong Kong continue to honour the mass movement of 29 years ago that came close to toppling the ‘Communist’ Party dictatorship, but after two years of unprecedented attacks, repressive laws, manipulation of Legco elections and jailing of protesters, it shows the people’s resolve to fight for democracy is indestructible.

Against this background the decision of the Federation of Students and Hong Kong’s eight student unions which make up the Federation, for the fourth year running, to refuse to participate in the June 4 vigil looks more and more ludicrous and out of touch with reality.

The student unions, under ‘localist’ leadership since 2015, justify their decision to stay away from the Victoria Park event with several arguments: anti-China nationalism, dissatisfaction with the pan-democratic dominated ‘Alliance’ which hosts the vigil, and because they object to the slogan “build a Democratic China”. The full name of the Alliance is Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.

This year, once again, the student unions’ stand drew massive media publicity. Pro-government media choose to publicise the ‘boycott’ to portray a deep split in the opposition to dictatorship. The more liberal sections of the media also treated this as a big story, but for different reasons, mistakenly believing the leaders of the student unions speak for significant numbers of youth when in fact they don’t.

This media coverage gave the localist-inspired ‘boycott’ much greater significance than it warranted. The higher turnout at the June 4 vigil puts the students’ stayaway in perspective. Tens of thousands of young people joined the vigil, disregarding the student unions’ line. Nor did the student leaders organise any rival June 4 activities, as they have in previous years although with limited success.

There is significant dissatisfaction with the Alliance’s conduct of the annual commemoration, which they have tried to de-politicise and separate from today’s struggle. But the student unions’ so-called boycott merely adapts and merges itself into this existing mood, rather than directing or giving it an organised form.

The June 4 ‘boycott’ this year was an especially lame protest – nothing more than a press statement. This sums up the blind alley of right-wing localism, which rages against the lack of fight of the pan-democratic leaders (something we can agree upon), but does not offer an alternative.

Since Carrie Lam’s appointment university campuses have faced unprecedented attacks. The ‘independence’ banners episode was used by the authorities to further limit students’ freedom of speech. The Baptist University Mandarin language dispute has been used to discipline student activists as a deterrent to others. The localist-led student unions have been incapable of mobilising serious struggle against these attacks. Once again, the sectarian politics of localism has led to self-isolation.

In a further contradiction, the Federation of Students actually went to the June 4 vigil area to raise money for their ‘political prisoner fund’ but did so in a low-key manner without putting a political alternative to the pan-democratic leaders and the ‘Alliance’.

Wouldn’t it have made more sense in this case to end their ‘boycott’ in order to unite with 115,000 protesters and conduct a bolder campaign over the persecution of localists like Edward Leung and to protest the attacks on campus freedom of speech? Maintaining the ‘boycott’ position was about giving a show of doing something when in fact doing nothing.

Students in Hong Kong cannot afford passive non-fighting student unions. The increasing government repression means there is an urgent need to build a fighting and democratic leadership for students, to turn the student unions into real struggle organisations. This is what socialists stand for.

Candle-light vigil in Hong Kong on June 4.

Background: Student unions – a counter-revolution

As socialists warned at that time, localist activists were able to profit three years ago from a mood of dissatisfaction among students with the previous more pan-democratic-aligned leaders of the Federation of Students. This mood coalesced with frustration and disappointment at the failure of the Umbrella Revolution to achieve change. The student unions were seen as aloof, bureaucratic organisations under the previous leadership.

Under their control the student unions were never turned into democratic campaigning organisations. This became strikingly clear during the Umbrella Revolution, which given the key role of youth should have been a historic moment for genuine fighting student unions to prove themselves – mobilising, organising and debating the political tasks of the movement. But the student unions played only a peripheral role.

While individual student leaders became faces of the Umbrella Movement, they were largely operating in a vacuum without any real organisation behind them.

The localists gained from protest votes to eject the old leadership, capturing control of the student unions the following year. But under localist leadership the very same problems – bureaucracy, lack of grassroots involvement and internal democracy, no mass campaigning work – have become even worse. Nobody would claim the student unions have become stronger today.