The Life and Death of the ‘Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’ – Part Two

By Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wahtranslated by China Change, July 31, 2022

Szeto Wah (司徒華, middle, then the president of the Alliance), Cheung Man-kwong (張文光, right), and Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) in 2009.

(Continued from Part One)

Supporting the Chinese democracy movement, from Hong Kong to overseas

Among all political organizations in Hong Kong, the Alliance is the only one that continuously worked to support the Chinese democracy movement.

In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Alliance made resistance a new normal: it hosted parades and rallies almost every month, each time with 10,000-20,000 participants. Only a year later did such events change into commemoration; at the same time, the public began to perceive that it was very unlikely for China to democratize in the short term.

Two years after the Tiananmen massacre, in 1991, when Szeto Wah was interviewed by Open Magazine (《開放雜誌》), the Alliance’s focus changed from supporting pro-democracy activists to China’s human rights issues, though it still helped activists’ families with difficulties in life. It also provided living expenses to dissidents who had escaped to Hong Kong through Operation Yellowbird (黃雀行動), arranged for them to seek asylum in other countries, and allocated 1.2 million HKD to support those who had escaped to France.  

At the same time, the Alliance kept up its publicity efforts. The Anti-Media Censorship Department, with help of volunteers, continued to send informational materials on the pro-democracy movement to tens of thousands of mainland Chinese addresses. Only in 2001, with the rise of the internet, was the number of addresses reached yearly decreased to around 2,000.

The Alliance positioned itself as the vanguard of an international front in promoting Chinese democratization. Its Human Rights and Assistance Department has collected a list of 1,000 arrested pro-democracy activists with their personal details. It also has a Global Outreach Department that funds overseas pro-democracy groups to organize Tiananmen anniversary-related events and set up support networks. 

In 1991, several overseas pro-democracy groups sent 16 representatives to Geneva to lobby governments and human rights organizations and provided them with information about the Chinese government’s human rights violations. Many countries’ delegates criticized China in their speeches. The same year, the Alliance began a petition to oppose secret trials and demand the release of pro-democracy activists. It got 130,000 signatures, which the groups presented to the chair of the [UN] Human Rights Council via lobbying groups. At the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Movement in 1999, the Alliance for the first time sent representatives to attend the UN Human Rights Council meeting and submitted a report on China’s human rights situation, which became the official record of the UN.

The Alliance maintained a high degree of activity for more than a decade. But by the early 2000s, its heavy spending and dearth of income meant it had to significantly reduce financial support for overseas groups organizing June 4th anniversary events, and instead focused on providing video and audio-based materials. Today, it only contacts overseas pro-democracy groups on an irregular basis.

Albert Ho’s explanation is that there’s not many opportunities for UN lobbying, and this was moreover not the focus of the Alliance’s work. China signed [in 1998] but has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was easier in the 1990s to create international pressure and negotiate for the release of pro-democracy activists. But as time passed, such efforts became increasingly difficult.

The patriotism of the pro-democracy camp: love the people, not the Party

Szeto Wah, writing in his memoir River of No Return (《大江東去》), said: “The Alliance’s supporters are united by one innocent goal: to oppose the regime in Beijing that suppressed the student protesters.” The composition of its Standing Committee has changed every year, but “the Alliance never sent out candidates on the organization’s behalf or supported any one political party. This was to avoid creating internal schisms, since members of the Alliance come from different political parties and groups.”

Former chair of the Democratic Party disciplinary committee Mak Hoi-wah (麥海華), who is a standing member of the Alliance, acknowledged that, “historically speaking, the Alliance was built on the foundation of the pro-democracy camp.” He added, however, that compared with political parties in Hong Kong and overseas pro-democracy organizations, the Alliance has not had internal power grab and division. He described it as an “endeavor of the conscience.”

While some have tried to draw a clear distinction, the Alliance’s links to the pro-democracy camp are firm. Martin Lee, for example, was the vice chair for the Alliance for a year before he became more focused on work with the United Democrats of Hong Kong (香港民主同盟). At its height, though, half of the Hong Kong legislators from the pro-democracy camp were also members of the Alliance. 

The Tiananmen massacre caused a complete break between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp and the CCP; Szeto Wah and Martin Lee were kicked out of the Basic Law Drafting Committee. In Szeto’s memoir, he wrote that the Tiananmen movement’s biggest significance for Hongkongers is that it allowed people to “recognize the nature of the Party, that love for the nation isn’t the same as love for the Party, nor love for a political regime. It is love for our compatriots.”

From 1999 to 2018, pro-democracy politicians such as Szeto Wah, Albert Ho, and Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) made 18 attempts to initiate a motion that would “redress [the injustice of] June 4th,” but they were all shot down by the establishment camp. It seemed to be the biggest impasse for the establishment. To this, Albert Ho said: “Our responsibility is to not forget.”  

The patriotism of the Alliance carried over to the mainstream of Hong Kong pro-democracy politics. 

In 1996, Albert Ho established the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands (the Senkaku Islands) and led boats from Taiwan to stage protests at the islands. On the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, Ho and a group of Democratic Party members commemorated the day in front of the Consulate-General of Japan in Hong Kong. He also proposed several legislations asking Japan for reparations over its invasion of China, and had gone to Japan to render legal assistance for victims of imperial Japanese war crimes. “No one in the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (民建聯) understands history… So they equate patriotism to love for the CCP,” he once said somewhat indignantly. 

For many years, Ho has been criticized as a Chinese nationalist shill. “You will have such sentiments if you see the suffering of our nation and our people,” he said. Asked if he would call himself a patriot, he only said, “I love the people.” 

Ho explained his rationale for stressing a love of the Chinese people and culture, rather than “patriotism” (the Chinese term, 愛國, literally means “love of country”). “The reason I don’t like to use the term ‘patriotism’ is not because I hold any feelings against China, but rather that this regime doesn’t belong to the people, and I don’t want to conflate the two,” he said.

Albert Ho (何俊仁) in Victoria Park in early May 2021 shortly before his arrest. Photo: Stand News

‘Love the country, love the people; the Hong Kong spirit’: Frictions grow with the rise of localism

The decline in popularity of the Alliance’s “patriotism” began with the June 4 anniversary in 2013, which had the proposed “Love the country, love the people; the Hong Kong spirit” as the theme for the year (愛國愛民 香港精神). With the rise of localism, the theme triggered a series of debates. Alliance Standing Committee member Tsui Hon-kwong (徐漢光) also drew criticism for his email asking Ding Zilin (丁子霖), the leader of Tiananmen Mothers (天安門母親), to rebuke localist opinions and, in the course of their exchange, criticized her for having “Stockholm syndrome.” The Alliance eventually reached a compromise to have Tsui temporarily resign and resume his position the following year. Speaking with the media, Ding also criticized the theme, calling it “stupid.”

Over the years, the Alliance’s June 4 anniversary annual themes have seen a series of changes. From 1990 to 1993, the themes were still about fighting for the human rights of pro-democracy political prisoners; in 1994, the theme, “Never forget June 4 as we approach 1997,”  touched on Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty; phrases such as “passing the torch” began to appear in the 2000s, reflecting reactions to local Hong Kong events and major incidents in mainland China. In 2003, it joined calls to “oppose Article 23”; in 2010, the demand was to “release Liu Xiaobo”; in 2015, the slogan of “all people unite in the fight for democracy and the redress of June 4” appeared in the context of the previous autumn’s Umbrella Movement.   

The number of participants in the Alliance is a barometer of local identity, with both high and low readings. The 2003 June 4 vigil remains the most-attended social movement. Since then, with the growth of the Chinese economy and the Beijing Olympics, some gatherings have seen as few as 35,000 participants. But after 2009, the number of participants suddenly surged fourfold to 200,000. Then the number decreased again as localists questioned the Alliance for its Chinese nationalism (大中華膠). In [Ho’s] opinion, the mounting social issues in Hong Kong require more urgent attention, and there’s no need to direct focus away from them. “Our main, everyday focus is on promoting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, so the Alliance is not our all-year job.”

Mak Hoi-wah (麥海華) believes that it was the public’s persistence, rather than the Alliance’s efforts on its own, that brought tens of thousands of people to attend the vigils. The Alliance is only in charge of coordination work, but for “any movement that has gone on for 30-plus years, it’s hardly surprising for there to be rise and decline. We should instead admire its longevity,” he said. 

Mak Hoi-wah (麥海華). Photo: hk01

In 2014, the Umbrella Movement broke out and localism became more popular. The Alliance received even stronger criticism and was accused, for example, of merely “going through the motions” (行禮如儀). The same year, some localists parted ways with the Alliance and hosted a separate June 4 gathering in Tsim Sha Tsui. In 2015, the Hong Kong Federation of Students decided to attend the June 4 vigil as a non-member of the Alliance. Four student representatives burnt the Basic Law on the stage while presenting the slogan “masters of our own destiny, Hongkongers create our own constitution” (命運自主、港人修憲). The Hong Kong University Students’ Union held a “defend Hong Kong” evening event.

In 2016, the HKFS formally broke with the Alliance, and the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation (HKIAD) boycotted the Victoria Park vigil. The CUHK and HKU hosted a seminar on Hong Kong’s future. Althea Suen (孫曉嵐), the then President of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, believed that Hong Kongers should focus on discussing the future of Hong Kong, not how to build a democratic China.    

Since 2004, the School of Journalism and Communication at CUHK and HKU Public Opinion Programme have conducted many surveys at the June 4 gatherings. The results show that “keeping the memory alive” remains the most important goal of the event. Compared with 2014, the 2015 survey participants who believed that the goal of “realizing democracy in China” was most important shrank from 50 percent to 40 percent, while those who saw “realizing democracy in Hong Kong” as the greater priority grew from 50 percent to 60 percent. Francis L. F. Lee (李立峯), the director at the CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication, wrote an article saying that localist criticism of the Alliance shows that it doesn’t agree with the values behind the rituals of the June 4th vigil. 

Responding to the localists, the Alliance’s 2015 June 4 gathering introduced elements from the Umbrella Movement. It canceled a performance of the song “Chinese Dream” (《中國夢》) and replaced it with “Open Your Umbrella” (《撐起雨傘》) Families of mainlanders who were arrested for supporting the Umbrella Movement were also invited to speak via video.

The words “fight” and “freedom” appeared for the first time in the Alliance’s theme for the 2020 events. The same happened this year (2021).

Today, following the imposition of the National Security Law, everyone must confront the CCP straight on regardless of their party affiliations. Albert Ho is convinced that time itself has proved his long-held conviction. “I believe that Hong Kong’s democracy movement is part of the democracy movement in China overall.” 

Is it true that there’s no difference between parties in the face of suppression? Ho thinks that hardships have united the pro-democracy camp; even though differences still exist, they have stopped openly quarreling with each other. 

At the same time, he says: “All I can say is this: don’t assume that they will embrace [unity in] the pro-democracy camp, even though the regime treats them like this.”

Bearing the torch of democracy? ‘Patriotism’ of the new generation of Standing Committee members

Since 2000, the Alliance has called for “passing on the torch” of democracy and educating the next generation of the movement. However, the transition from old to new, coupled with criticism from the localists, have given rise to a perceptive gulf that is difficult to bridge, and which puts the organization in a unique dilemma. 

The older generation of the Alliance Standing Committee tended to have more experiences with China, and love for the country was almost part of their nature: Andrew Tu Hsueh Kwei, a senior member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation (香港民主促進會), came from Inner Mongolia, and he made seeking reparations from Japan a lifelong mission. Szeto Wah was born months before Japan’s invasion of China; Tsui Hon Kwong (徐漢光), during the 1967 Hong Kong riots, became angry over his schoolmate Tsang Tak-sing’s (曾德成) two-year imprisonment for passing out anti-colonial flyers, also did the same. Later during the Cultural Revolution, when he was a teacher at a leftist school, he saw the blind worship of Mao Zedong as being too extreme and gradually drew a distance from the leftists. Albert Ho also admitted that there was limited work they could do in mainland China following the Tiananmen massacre; many Standing Committee members like him had their mainland travel permits confiscated and could no longer enter China. “But we still provide humanitarian aid as long as we are able to do so,” he said. 

At the same time, the Alliance has finally found candidates from the younger generation to be torchbearers after 30 years of humanitarian aid to democracy activists in China.

Born in the 1980s, Tonyee Chow Hang-tung (鄒幸彤), the current vice-chair of the Alliance, sees that the gap between generations as being not about age but rather about their perception of China. “Those running social activism in Hong Kong don’t understand the [dissident] movement inside China; this lack of understanding is caused by the state. The democratic camp didn’t send them to China for exchange, and as a result, this gap in their understanding is hard to overcome.”  

In December 2014, a year after Chow was defeated in her bid for standing committee member, she was elected and worked at Alliance’s Rights Defense Department. In her political agenda, she has stressed that the Alliance “supports the broader pro-democracy movement in China, not just the June 4 movement.” This requires a greater understanding of the situation in mainland China beyond reliance on online news and materials. Supporting China’s pro-democracy movement requires actively setting up networks, establishing clear positions, and creating agendas for action. 

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the space for civil society on the mainland has continued to narrow. It has become even harder for Hongkongers to understand and empathize with China — a dilemma Chow has been well aware of. 

In the early 2000s, Chow was working on her doctors’ degree in geophysics at Cambridge University studying earthquakes. She dropped out halfway and devoted herself to advocating for human rights in China. When she was a child, her mother had taken her to June 4 gatherings; whilst abroad, she watched the livestream of the vigil, hosted screenings of documentaries by filmmaker Ai Xiaoming (​​艾曉明), and invited exiled activists such as Wang Dan to speak at her events. She also established the organization UKCUTS to connect the Uyghur diaspora and exiled Tibetans. She became connected with the Alliance when she hosted the Alliance’s “I want to go home” program that visited the 1989 student leaders exiled in the U.K. 

Chow Hang-tung distributing electric candles on May 20, 2021. She has been serving a total of 22 months in prison since Dec 2021 for “inciting” June 4th vigil in 2020 and 2021. Photo: Stand News

When the Wenchuan earthquake hit Sichuan in 2008, her concern for the victims in the disaster overcame her researcher’s dispassion. She began to work various jobs at the Alliance after returning to Hong Kong, and became involved in supporting labor organizations in mainland China. For several years, she traveled frequently between the mainland and Hong Kong, participated in the rights defense movement, studied law, and became a barrister. Since early 2019, she’s been barred entry to the mainland. 

Chow witnessed how, following Xi Jinping’s rise to power, the government “began to crack down on one issue after another” deemed politically sensitive by the Party. NGOs were uprooted; incidents such as the 709 mass arrests of human rights lawyers highlighted the increasing level of repression. High-profile support for human rights was no longer feasible. One of Chow’s friends at an NGO saw domestic security police come to live in her home after her husband’s arrest. They slept on her bed and monitored her closely, and forbade her from contacting other people. Others faced torture, and years-long disappearances became commonplace. The remaining dissenters became more cautious. The more they were suppressed, the more isolated they became. As the movement was increasingly forced underground, it became harder to organize support and resources. Only people already in those circles or in their areas were privy to the latest updates. 

“This new form of support is not something suited for the Alliance’s senior members to do,” Chow said. It upsets her that “it’s not whether these mainland activists are brave or not; there are a lot of brave people who are ready to stand out but are instantly cracked down without the slightest window for them to accomplish anything.”  

Supporting the democracy movement in mainland China has been part of the Alliance’s work. Because the Alliance has been banned in the mainland over the years, the networks accumulated through the 1989 democracy movement and their experiences can no longer serve as useful resources in the new environment and keep the Alliance abreast of the latest developments. Chow never identified herself as part of the Alliance when she traveled to mainland China, and keeps a low profile unless there’s a need to bring attention to specific cases. In the case of the 12 Hongkongers, for example, she helped relatives to follow up on the matter outside of court and provided them with legal advice.

Transcending differences on identity and ideology 

Are Hongkongers Chinese? Chow Hang-tung freely admits the existence of a “deep schism” regarding this question among the ranks of the Alliance. 

“There’s an awkwardness that Alliance has to deal with, which is that some of our friends really see themselves as Chinese,” she said. In order to get practical results in supporting the Chinese democracy movement, she believes that no one should be excluded from the Alliance on the basis of their sense of identity. “As a group, we are inclusive of all identities. As long as something is worth doing, it doesn’t matter if we see ourselves as Chinese or as Hongkongers, we’ll work together all the same.” 

In her 2018 political agenda at the Standing Committee election, Chow advocated for building links with new political organizations. “The social movement landscape since the Umbrella Movement is different from that of 30 years ago, but little has been done to cooperate with these post-Umbrella groups. We can’t rely on the organizations and networks that existed at the time the Alliance was founded, we need to develop new networks.” 

However, bridging differences of political ideas is something easier said than done. Chow is also aware that “if someone hates the pan-Democrats, they’ll hate the Alliance too.” However, she has no party affiliation and bears no grudge against anyone. In 2016, she represented the defendants in the lawsuit involving the beating incident in the Mong Kok civil unrest. She is a friend of fellow democracy activist Figo Chan Ho-wun (陳皓桓, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front until his conviction in May 2021), with whom she often goes out drinking past midnight.  

This year, the Alliance distributed electronic candles via its street stalls and collected signatures of mourning to remember June 4. Public enthusiasm exceeded expectations, and the candles were quickly all handed out. Chow found the turnout encouraging. “We’re doomed if we don’t stand together to resist this latest round of repression. It’s easy to pick people off one by one. One person can’t achieve much alone, what’s needed is to unite fellow travelers.”

Patriotism and localism put to the test

Following the 1989 movement, Hong Kong saw a wave of immigration, similar to what is happening in the city today. 

As pro-democracy organizations are all threatened by the red lines set by the National Security Law and freedom of assembly has greatly shrunk, the Alliance’s anachronistic patriotism may have met its ultimate test. 

In the 2019 National Day demonstration case, 10 defendants pleaded guilty to organizing an unauthorized gathering. Lee Cheuk-yan maintained his Chinese patriotism, but in his guilty plea, said: “I have spent over 40 years fighting for democratic reform in China. This is my bitter passion, a solemn love for my country. I am reminded of the words of Bai Hua (白樺, a mainland author): ‘You may love your country, but does your country love you?’ ….If ‘patriotism’ simply means love of the Party, then it’d be so easy, all I’d have to do is follow the CCP.”

This year’s June 4 parade and rally events have all received letters of no objection from the Hong Kong police. For the parade originally scheduled to be held on May 30, Jerry Yuen Tak Chi (袁德智) — secretary of the localist CUHK student organization Spark (星火) for outreach and co-founder of Street Stalls (開站師) — published an article titled I Used to Boycott the Alliance’s June 4 Rallies, But This Year I Will Mourn the Massacre (《我曾抵制支聯會六四集會 但今年我決定會悼念六四》). In the article, he explained how his feelings changed following the saga of the 12 Hongkongers who tried to escape to Taiwan and were helped by mainland lawyers when they were intercepted and detained by mainland police. While remaining dedicated to the localist path, he admitted that given the circumstances, it is necessary for Hongkongers to put aside their differences of generation, partisan convictions, and identity. In a time when running street stalls is seen as the frontliners, Yuen said that, if we can’t keep up the political habits of yesteryear’s activist movements, it is hard to speak about more political actions. “To mourn is no longer purely an act of mourning, but an expression of support for one’s allies… It is also a political litmus test of whether Hongkongers still have the will to resist in the era of the National Security Law.” 

(To be continued)


The Life and Death of the ‘Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’ – Part One, by Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wahtranslated by China Change, July 29, 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.

The Life and Death of the ‘Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’ – Part Four, by Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wah, translated by China Change, August 8, 2022.

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