By Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wah, translated by China Change, July 29, 2022
Those without a keen familiarity with Hong Kong’s democracy movements, especially our English-speaking readers, might not have heard about the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, but you’ve likely seen photos of the annual June 4th Vigil in the city’s Victoria Park, where a sea of candle lights flickered year after year for 30 years. The Hong Kong Alliance was the organizer of the June 4th Vigils from 1990 to 2019 until it was banned in 2020 under Covid rules and outlawed in 2021 and since, following the imposition of the National Security Law in the Hong Kong SAR. The Alliance was disbanded on September 25, 2021 under intense pressure from the new law.
Starting today and in seven installments, China Change will post a translation of an in-depth profile of the Alliance published in Stand News in June 2021. In the fall of 2021, China Change obtained permission for translating the profile, and shortly afterwards on December 29, 2021, Stand News announced its closure after senior staffers were apprehended by police and its office raided the same day. While the Stand News website has been taken offline, you can still find the original Chinese version of the feature (here, here, here, here) on their “repository” site. – The Editors
Following the May 21, 1989 rally in Hong Kong that saw more than a million people take to the streets amid the democratic movement then sweeping across mainland China, an alliance was born. Its full name — the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (香港市民支持愛國民主運動聯合會), notably combines the term “patriotic” with the struggle for democracy.
As spring turned into summer, people of Hong Kong from all bands of the political spectrum stood out fearlessly to voice their support for student demonstrators gathered at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In unprecedented spontaneous mass events, people continued to defy the limits of the rally grounds in a giant step forward for Hong Kong’s civil society.
This local movement that sprang up on a scale never before seen from the groundswell of patriotism in 1989 would prove an instrumental moment in the awakening of the Hong Kong people. How did this movement build upon the past and set the stage for future civil action?
The Hong Kong Alliance (支聯會 in Chinese abbreviation) maintains five operational goals (五大綱領) for the completion of its long-term mission: the establishment of a democratic China. Its adherence to this doctrine, with the more recent rise of Hong Kong localism, invited criticism from those who saw the Hong Kong Alliance as being about formality over substance, or even as agents of Chinese nationalism.
However, with the imposition of the National Security Law heralding a new era for Hong Kong, the Alliance demonstrated its willingness to cross red lines when it came to commemorating the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre after the NSL’s passage. Of the Alliance’s 14 standing committee members, the chair and vice-chair — Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) and Albert Ho Chun-yan (何俊仁) – are currently behind bars; many others have open cases against them. Of their five “operational goals,” the goal of “ending authoritarian one-party rule” has fueled attacks from pro-establishment figures, such as the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies’ Tian Feilong (田飛龍), who argued that the goal violated the NSL and should either be scrapped, or the Alliance disbanded. [On September 8, 2021, Chow Hang-tung, another vice-chair of the Alliance, was arrested. — China Change editors.]
The memorial vigils commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre have been banned for two consecutive years [as of the publication of this series in Standard News in June 2021 – China Change editors]. The emergence and suppression of the Alliance — an organization committed to peaceful, rational, and nonviolent action — parallels the fate of the broader pro-democracy movement.
This year, the theme set by the Alliance is “For Freedom – A Common Fate – A Shared Struggle” (為自由‧共命運‧同抗爭). For the last 32 years, how has this group of people struggled for freedom? How did they get sidelined as localist trends took over? And then how did they undergo a re-baptism by fire after the promulgation of the NSL?
‘Patriotic’ federation of students led the way to support Beijing students, advancing freedom of assembly in Hong Kong
Student movements raged in Hong Kong in the 1970s that saw the likes of Protect Diaoyu Islands, “Resist Corruption, Arrest Peter Godber,” (反貪污，捉葛柏) which informed an nationalist, patriotic, and anti-colonial undercurrent among the student activist scene.
On April 15, 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) prompted a massive turn-out among Beijing students for the memorial of the reformed-minded late Secretary of the Communist Party. This led to a peaceful demonstration and class boycott under the slogan of “oppose corruption, oppose bureaucratism” (反貪污、反官僚). On the day of the memorial, 100,000 demonstrators faced off with 10,000 Armed Police officers at Tiananmen. A day after the publication of the People’s Daily’s April 26 Editorial [titled We Must Unequivocally Oppose Turmoil (《必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱》)], the students of Beijing called upon their peers to organize protests at the square.
More than 2,000 kilometers away, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (香港學聯, HKFS) stood up to back the students at Tiananmen, and sent representatives to the Chinese capital.
Richard Tsoi Yiu Cheong (蔡耀昌), a member of the Federation at the time, recalls that after hearing that the Armed Police would take action to stop the student demonstrations in Beijing, members of the HKFS decided to go to the Xinhua News Agency branch in Wanchai to demonstrate at 9 a.m. They would also request a meeting with Xu Jiatun (許家屯), then the director of the Hong Kong Branch of Xinhua, to relay their hopes that Beijing would not suppress the students. During their demonstration, their numbers steadily grew from a few dozen to about three or four hundred people crowded on the walkway. Only around dusk, when news came that the students in Beijing had made it to Tiananmen Square, did the crowd gathered around the Xinhua office in Wanchai begin to disperse. At that time, Richard Tsoi was not even aware of The Public Order Ordinance; a British police officer pointed this out when he was mobbed by reporters, saying that the students’ federation had neglected to follow the Ordinance and apply for a demonstration permit; however, he reassured those present that he would not file charges.
On May 4, 100,000 students in Beijing marched to Tiananmen Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement. In Hong Kong, a crowd of 3,000, including students from 13 universities and other institutions of higher learning, also set off from their campuses, marching to Chater Garden in Central District.
This parade set a milestone for the local student movement and marked the beginning of overwhelming support for the 1989 Chinese democracy movement in Hong Kong. By contrast, social movements in the 1980s typically gathered no more than a few hundred participants. Even during the famous Golden Jubilee celebration held in the 1970s, only 10,000 attended the rally at its peak.
In Beijing, on May 13, the students gathered at Tiananmen Square went on hunger strike and called for a parade to begin throughout the city on May 17. This marked a transition from student demonstrations to a broader nationwide movement for liberty and democracy. On May 16, the HKFS also called on students to go on hunger strike at the gate of Xinhua News Agency, calling for a student strike, and announcing a march for the next day. That morning, Richard Tsoi and then-HKFS secretary-general Andrew To Kwan-hang (陶君行) received a call from the police and made an appointment to meet at the Happy Valley Police Station, where they discussed the parade arrangements with an officer. Tsoi and To planned to have the march go through Victoria Park, then along Hennessy Road to the Xinhua office — this would become the landmark Hennessy Road March. The officer, concerned that agitated protesters might smash the jewelry shops in the vicinity, suggested the march course via Leighton Road instead. After an on-site assessment, however, Tsoi felt Leighton to be deserted, and so declined to discuss the matter further.
In the evening of May 17, at the starting point of the parade in Victoria Park, the officer came to ask Tsoi, “Are you going to take Hennessy Road?” When Tsoi answered in the affirmative, the policeman said, “Give me ten minutes to prepare.” In the end, the crowd swelled so much that demonstrators occupied the eastbound lanes of Queen’s Road, and officers deployed to help keep the route open for traffic.
Ultimately, the Federation of Students did not apply for any “Letter of No Objection”; in many subsequent protests, the organizers only informed the authorities of their plans but did not apply for permits. After 1989, however, the authorities’ tolerance for such activity waned and the police frequently cited the Public Order Ordinance in obstructing protesters. The HKFS, for its part, pushed back against police authority as a means of civil disobedience that would be emulated for years to come. In June 1992, the police charged three student federation members holding a vigil for the Tiananmen Massacre in front of the Xinhua office with illegal assembly — among those charged was Richard Tsoi, even though he did not organize the event.
Amidst these restrictions, protesters had only a tenuous right to public assembly. After 14 years of continued activism, Tsoi would become convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front. The CHRF then organized the July 1, 2003 demonstration, which saw half a million demonstrators clad in black take to the streets of Hong Kong.
A ‘Localist’ foundation enters the scene, the Alliance is established; Martin Lee: ‘From now on, Hong Kong will not be the same’
Beijing declared martial law in the night of May 19. It was not until then when the more localist Hong Kong Democratic Foundation (HKDF) hosted its first parade in support of Beijing students, as the HKFS members were preoccupied with their hunger strike, an event that marked the true birth of the Alliance.
The core membership of the Alliance came from the Democratic Foundation. The Foundation was founded following a 1984 summit led by Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱銘), Szeto Wah (司徒華), and others to discuss political reforms and the drafting of a Basic Law. They formed the Joint Committee on the Promotion of Democratic Government (民主政制促進聯委會), that is, the HKDF. This would be the precursor to the city’s first political party, the United Democrats of Hong Kong (香港民主同盟, UDHK). This organization’s founding platform consisted of “local first,” “focus on Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” promotion of democratic activism, and frequent gathering to discuss the “190-person plan” (190 人方案). In a past interview, UDHK member Cheung Man-kwong (張文光) mentioned that regarding the 1989 pro-democracy movement, the consensus in the meeting was low-key at first, until Tu Hsueh Kwei (杜學魁), an educator and the husband of Elsie Tu, then a member of the Legislative Council and Municipal Council, said: “Such a massive event is taking place in China, yet the Democratic Foundation is still asking whether the Hong Kong pro-democracy camp should take a role. I find this unacceptable, so I will withdraw from the HKDF.” It was only after Tu’s outburst that the local pro-democracy faction decided to throw its support behind the student democracy movement in mainland China.
On May 20, the Hong Kong Observatory put out a No. 8 Storm Signal cyclone warning. Albert Ho had a phone call with Szeto Wah on whether to continue the rally, and finally decided to “go regardless of however few or many people there are.” Against all expectations, the turnout in Victoria Park was overwhelming despite the torrential downpour. Even in raincoats, the rally goers were drenched. Thousands of people descended on the Xinhua office to berate Li Peng, crying “those who oppress the democracy movement will not come to a good end.” In Ho’s recollection, the first speaker to take the podium was Gary Cheng Kai-nam (程介南) — then a core cadre of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (民主建港協進聯盟). “Down with Li Peng!” he shouted.
On May 21, more than 1 million Hong Kongers packed in the streets like sardines as they took part in the march. Signs at the Happy Valley Racecourse prominently displayed the words “Emergency Patriotic Action,” while the crowds held up a massive white banner emblazoned with bold black characters: “Li Peng, Li Peng, We Will Not Tolerate Your Tyranny” (李鵬李鵬、豈容你專橫).
That evening, Martin Lee proclaimed that “from now on, Hong Kong will not be the same.” It was a farewell to the old days where the city would continue in much the same way no matter the external goings-on of the world. The Hong Kong Alliance had made its bona fide debut.
Grassroots rallies blossom, Hongkongers hold all-night discussions about forming a decentralized democracy forum
The parades and rallies in Hong Kong to support the Chinese democracy movement became more frequent following May 1, when Wang Dan read his “Letter to Compatriots in Hong Kong”(《告香港同胞書》). The city experienced a powerful welling up of patriotic sentiment that continued for many months. Many of the demonstrations were not reported on in the papers; however, Alliance volunteer Kwan Chun-pong (關振邦) recalled the atmosphere when he was interviewed by Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Student Newspaper for the “The Special Edition on the 29th Anniversary of the 1989 Democracy Movement.” According to Kwan, before May 20, some residents of On Ting Estate in Tuen Mun District (屯門區安定邨) had already loudly called upon their neighbors to go downstairs and march in the streets of the community.
Wong Chi-keung (黃志強), a serving member of the Alliance’s Standing Committee, also remembers that the Sham Shui Po District (深水埗區) councilors organized a parade, which was joined by many of those living in the district’s public housing. The march started in the evening from Maple Street Playground (楓樹街遊樂場), and picked up thousands of participants as they walked to the Xinhua office in Kowloon Tong (九龍塘).
On May 28, the Alliance put together the “Global Chinese Parade” (全球華人大遊行), which saw a record-breaking 1.5 million people gather in the East Corridor (東區走廊). On the same day, according to Wen Wei Po (文匯報) and Overseas Chinese Daily News (華僑日報), community parades in Sha Tin (沙田), Tuen Mun, Fanling (粉嶺), Kwai Tsing (葵青), and Lantau Island (大嶼山), drew crowds of about 100,000 people. The Sha Tin Theatre (沙田話劇團) put on a pro-democracy play in Des Voeux Road Central (德輔道中) in front of HSBC Bank. There was even a Catholic prayer gathering.
Signs bearing slogans such as “Support the hunger-striking students” and “The Chinese and Hong Kong democracy movements are united” were a common sight at these marches and rallies.
The frequency and popularity of grassroots community marches declined quickly after the events of 1989, and would not return until the anti-extradition movement in 2019.
On May 20, on the eve of the establishment of the tight-knit organization that was the Hong Kong Alliance, a different kind of group, one characterized by the highest degree of decentralization — the Democracy Forum (民主台) — came into being.
That night, in an alley off Oi Kwan Road opposite the Xinhua office, dozens to hundreds of Hongkongers — among them a then construction subcontractor, current Eastern District legislator Tsang Kin-shing (曾健成) — gathered every night to hold public discussions running from evening through the small hours to dawn. The peak hours of these gatherings saw the attendance of as many as 600 people, including taxi drivers and construction workers. As if by divine intercession, even the Hong Kong Electric Company came out in support of the pro-democracy movement. A single phone call to the utility provider secured exclusive lighting for the Democracy Forum.
On the 27th, after the Concert for Democracy in China (民主歌聲獻中華), Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) took the millions raised during the event to China on behalf of the Alliance, but was arrested by PRC public security officers on June 5 during the flight back to Hong Kong. As Albert Ho and Szeto Wah petitioned the Hong Kong Governor’s Office and Xinhua for Lee’s release, they were supported by 5,000 people who gathered outside the Wan Chai office of the state mouthpiece.
Tsang Kin-shing was in the crowd. He recalled: “We didn’t have any loudspeakers. But the commander, Superintendent Bailey, lent me a megaphone. He knew that I was in charge of controlling the crowd.” For a while, Tsang proudly assumed a role as “commander of the square,” calling upon half of the assembly to crowd outside the Governor’s Office. His call to action was answered a hundredfold, something hard to imagine today.
As described in a report by the Overseas Chinese Daily News, on June 4th, the Alliance held a “black sit-in” with 300,000 participants; a subsequent parade around Hong Kong gathered more than 1 million.
Overwhelmed by grief and indignation at the bloodshed in Beijing, Tsang said, “At one point, our Democracy Forum mobilized thousands of people to cross through Man Kam To (文錦渡) to the mainland…” but was cut short, as “buses and trucks came and everyone was taken away.”
The protest period saw Hong Kong residents of all backgrounds gather before Xinhua every night in solidarity with the democracy movement. For example, when those at the Democracy Forum requested water, resident supporters delivered boxes of distilled water; when they had a shortage of printer paper, dozens of boxes were delivered to them. Even the opulent nightclub Club Bboss donated 300 packed meals. Tsang refused to take monetary donations from the people, instead directing the cash to the Federation of Students or the April Fifth Action Group (四五行動, a socialist political group founded in 1988 by Leung Kwok-hung).
Failure of the ‘Three Strikes’ and the enigma of the ‘Pitt Street Incident’
To protest the Chinese Communist Party’s military suppression of the students at Tiananmen, the Alliance had planned the “Three Strikes” for June 7 — a labor strike, market strike, and academic strike — in eight locations throughout Hong Kong. Szeto Wah also held discussions with the business community to organize a one-day marketwide strike.
However, the night before the planned action, the movement would encounter an unexpected turning point. According to TVB and various print paper reports, the day began with thousands of vans and trucks driving slowly through the streets of Mong Kok (旺角) soon after midnight. The situation soon sharpened as some among the thousands of protesters began to riot and clash with the police. A number of people pried open the gates to the Chinese Banking Association of Hong Kong, which was answered by the police with 49 rounds of tear gas. Fifteen people were arrested in what is known as the “Pitt Street Incident.”
At six o’clock in the morning, Szeto Wah released a recording via RTHK to call off the Three Strikes. In his memoir, The River of No Return (《大江東去》), he wrote that he had learned about the riots at 1:00 a.m. on the 7th, but was not aware of the details. Around 3 or 4 in the morning, LegCo and ExCo Senior Unofficial Member Lydia Selina Dunn (鄧蓮如) called to report that according to police intelligence, 70 to 80 suspiciously strong men had arrived in Hong Kong from Shenzhen with two-way permits. These men intermingled with the crowd, threw stones at the police, burned cars, and incited riots among the protesters. This news prompted Szeto Wah to discuss [calling off the strikes] with the Alliance standing committee. Martin Lee, who was vice-chairman of the Alliance at the time, had indicated in a previous interview that the decision was made due to concerns about a possible repeat of the violence on June 7.
Afterwards, the then police commander-in-chief of Kowloon district said that the troublemakers were organized, and that the authorities did not rule out a triad background. Szeto Wah has condemned these troublemakers for sabotaging the Hong Kong democracy movement, but the truth of their background has become a longstanding mystery. In his memoir, Szeto also mentioned that sometime before the 1997 handover, he had questioned Dick Lee Ming-kwai (李明逵 who served in the Hong Kong Police Force from 1972 to 2007 and retired in 2007 as the Commissioner of Police of Hong Kong) about the incident, noting that those arrested in the “Pitt Street Incident” never appeared in court, and that no convictions were made. Lee said that the British had taken all the case files back to the UK. Szeto Wah remained convinced that the interlopers had been sent to Hong Kong from China to exploit the opportunity to cause turmoil and undermine the Alliance.
Even though the Three Strikes were canceled, companies, shops, and even Chinese-funded institutions remained closed for half a day or the whole day, regardless of their political leaning. Before the opening of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, there was a three-minute silence, and all classes in Hong Kong were suspended for one day. Outside the Xinhua News Agency, an altar to honor those slain on June 4 was erected beside the Democracy Forum, attracting from all quarters a multitude of mourners who came to bow, offer flowers, and place floral wreaths. Tsang Kin-shing recalls that the crowd was so huge that mourners had to wait over two hours in line for a chance to lay flowers at the altar. The memorial collected 3 million signatures, which filled seven red, white, and blue plastic bags. On June 8, with the assistance of Superintendent Bailey, three incinerators were moved from a funeral parlor, to burn the signatures on the street outside the Xinhua branch to honor the spirits of the June 4 martyrs.
With the Alliance’s movement coming to a sudden halt, the coursing energy of the masses was bereft of direction. The huge numbers of people mobilized for civic action quickly began to plummet.
In the 30 years that followed, Hong Kong has never seen another serious attempt at something akin to the Three Strikes.
Albert Ho said, “The Alliance is a peaceful, rational, and nonviolent movement, and it is firmly rooted in Hong Kong.”
From spectrum-agnostic to left-center-right split
On June 11, 20 standing committee members were elected at the general meeting of the Alliance, consisting of 216 affiliations in total.
Former Alliance standing committee member Cheung Man-kwong (張文光) once told the media that, as early as the night of May 20, there was a consensus that an organization allowing the participation of all Hong Kong people regardless of political affiliation, needed to be established to support the 1989 pro-democracy movement. There was indeed such a need at the beginning. Albert Ho once mentioned that the Alliance’s Preparatory Committee (籌備委員會) held secret meetings every day at the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. Because of the need to raise funds from the public, a new structure was needed. The members included leftists and Trotskyists, including Gary Cheng Kai-Nam, Lai Chak Fun (黎則奮), Ng Chung-yin (吳仲賢), and others. Even Cheng Yiu-tong (鄭耀棠), the Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress, participated in the Alliance activities.
After months of discussions, the Alliance’s leadership mechanism was born. Members represent groups, which each hold one vote in the annual standing committee election. Before each election, candidates submit their political platforms, hold a consultation meeting, and then vote on each position. The Standing Committee holds a regular meeting every month, and then holds a vote at the general meeting every other month. In River of No Return, Szeto Wah mentioned that the organization was deliberately designed to remain loose, open, and transparent. There was never to be any confidentiality at the conferences and not secret meetings. Selection of members was limited to those recognized as trustworthy, so as to effectively prevent infiltration by the Communist Party.
In the beginning, the Alliance was truly able to unite the political spectrum from left, middle, and right, but the political atmosphere shifted quickly. Less than a month after the Tiananmen massacre, Gary Cheng of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers (教聯會) and Wong Wai Huang (黃偉雄) of the Federation of Civil Servants Trade Unions resigned for their respective reasons, and did not make it onto the list of the founding Standing Committee members. Tsang Kin-shing and Rose Wu (胡露茜) of the Democracy Forum later filled these gaps when they joined the Alliance.
Albert Ho was not surprised, because it was the events of 1989 that had set a precedent for action on such a large scale: “This was even more important than the anti-extradition bill protests, because it involved everyone: the left wing, the banks, Ta Kung Pao (大公報), Wen Wei Po (文匯報), the Nam Pak Hong (南北行) and China Merchants Group (招商局) were all there. All of the leftists were in. This is why it was so powerful, it broke down the CCP’s united front. Of course, the state [security] apparatus was very formidable and mounted a rapid counterattack, causing many to quickly shift their stance.”
Nonviolence clashes with radicalism; the movement experiences a split in its approaches to resistance
The July 1989 episode of The Common Sense (鏗鏘集, now known in English as the Hong Kong Connection), “Hand in Hand,” depicts the schism between the Alliance and the April Fifth Action Group. Although they were equally patriotic, the former believed in moderation while the latter insisted on a more radical approach.
After the Pitt Street Incident, the Alliance ceased activity for two weeks and held no gatherings; by contrast, April Fifth Action continued to agitate and organize mass events without interruption in a show of commitment to keeping up the spirit of the protest movement and of long-term struggle.
More than half of the Alliance members, including Szeto Wah, launched the “Hong Kong Self-Salvation Movement” (港人救港運動) to demand the security of Hong Kong’s political system, fight for Hongkongers’ rights to UK residency, accelerating the democratization of Hong Kong’s political system, and protecting human rights. However, Lau Wing-kam (劉榮錦), cofounder of April Fifth Action, criticized question of nationality law as a diversionary issue. “Once it comes to a struggle for residency rights, it will weaken support for the local democracy movement.” Lau was determined to maintain a common cause with compatriots in China.
To this, Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄) added that “only if China becomes a democracy, will the people of Hong Kong have hope for democracy.” However, the two organizations also agreed that the economies of China and Hong Kong are interdependent. If the city were to impose economic sanctions on China, it would be equivalent to killing 100 enemy troops for the loss of 1,000 allies. It would become impossible for Hong Kong to maintain its prosperity or social stability.
In September 1989, during a protest staged by April Fifth Action at the PRC National Day reception held by Xinhua News Agency, Lau Wing-kam was beaten by the police and charged with four crimes, including using violence, inciting others to use violence, assaulting the police, and illegal assembly. Lau recalled that at the time, Szeto Wah had wanted to break ranks (割𥱊, literally “cutting the mat,” a proverb originating in the Three Kingdoms era) with him, but was dissuaded from doing so due to opposition by the Alliance’s general assembly.
Prior to 1997, Leung Kwok-hung, who is a cofounder of April Fifth Action, posited a question in his interview with Hong Kong Connection: “When a pro-democracy or popular movement demands the end of one-party dictatorship, is it necessary to take the ‘peaceful, rational, and nonviolent’ approach? I have my reservations.”
It was not until 2003 that Leung Kwok-hung became a member of the Alliance Standing Committee. His political platform consisted of just one sentence: “Oppose the legislation of Article 23 in the Basic Law.” Three years later, the League of Social Democrats (社會民主連線) was established.
(To be continued…)
The Life and Death of the ‘Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’ – Part Two, by Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wah, translated by China Change, July 31, 2022.
The Life and Death of the ‘Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’ – Part Three, by Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wah, translated by China Change, August 6, 2022.