Lee Cheuk-yan: Committed to Honouring the Memory of the June 4 Massacre

5 mins read

‘To honour the memory of the June 4 massacre is a long-held sentiment of mine,’ said Lee Cheuk-yan, in mitigation to the court when he pleaded guilty to inciting others to take part in the unauthorised vigil after lighting candles in Victoria Park on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, as is usual. Lee’s story began in 1989, and today, his fate is inextricably linked to the Tiananmen Square massacre that happened 35 years ago. He was the General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the founding chairman of the Labour Party, the chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (Hong Kong Alliance), and a Legislative Council member. He has been incarcerated for more than three years for persistently honouring the memory of those killed during the June 4 crackdown and demanding responsibility for the Tiananmen Square massacre. Even when he was locked up, he did not give up, fasting and lighting matches instead of candles to grieve the June 4 incident. This year, on June 4, Victoria Park in Hong Kong will be dark and silent, but the candlelight will never go out once sparked by conscience.

Commit to Justice after Witness the June 4 incident

On May 21, 1989, the Hong Kong Alliance was established to gather Hong Kong people in support of the democratic movement in China, and the alliance’s delegation arrived in Beijing to support the students of the 1989 Democracy Movement. Lee was a member of this delegation. ‘On the night of June 4, I heard incessant gunshots and reports that the tanks were entering, bloodily crushing protesters in Chang’an Avenue. Suddenly, the lights went off in the Square. We drown ourselves in tears, not knowing if anyone survived. As dawn broke, we watched on as one after another casualties were carted away. We had no idea how many were hurt and killed. It was a night of immense devastation that I can never forget.’

The next day, Lee boarded a flight taking Hong Kong students and media home. He was taken away by the Police and then released as Hong Kong people petitioned for his freedom. Since that night, Lee has committed himself to the cause of democracy in Hong Kong and China. ‘I thanked God in my prayers, dedicated myself to be His instrument of Justice, and committed my life to the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong and China. This is my pledge to the people of Hong Kong who rescued me and the people of Beijing who implored us to tell the truth of what happened in the Square to the world.’

‘Upon returning to Hong Kong at the time, I felt compelled to support China’s pro-democracy movement for the rest of my life. So, I became the chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance. As I have said, this is a lifelong commitment,’ Lee stated in an interview that he became chairman of Hong Kong Alliance after its founding chairman Szeto Wah passed away in 2011, coinciding with a surge in local sentiments opposing the alliance’s support of the democratic movement in China.Lee stepped up to lead the organisation during a period of intensified crackdowns on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement by the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2019, amidst Hong Kong’s tumultuous times, he resumed his role as chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance. With the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020, the Hong Kong Alliance, viewed as a thorn in the Chinese Communist Party’s side, prepared for possible forced dissolution. The number of executive committee members decreased from 20 to 15, and only 14 stepped forward to run for office. Despite immense pressure, Lee maintained his position as chairman and served as the organisation’s last chairman before its forced dissolution.

35 Years of Persistence

Since 1989, the Hong Kong Alliance has hosted an annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the June 4 massacre. Before the vigil, the Hong Kong Alliance organises a series of June Fourth-related activities in May each year to raise public awareness, such as June 4 Run, March, Talk, Kite Flying and so on. For many years, the Hong Kong Alliance’s mourning activities were criticised as ritualistic. Despite criticism, the Hong Kong Alliance persisted for over 30 years, driven by an unwavering belief.

The Hong Kong Alliance has also devoted the last 30 years to advocating for human rights and democracy in China. Regardless of public participation, they set up street stations each year to collect Christmas cards and send warm wishes to China’s conscience prisoners and Tiananmen mothers. Before Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize, they went on weekend tours across various areas to collect signatures and postcards supporting the Charter 08 movement. Additionally, they initiated the ‘Vindication of the June 4 Incident’ motion in the Legislative Council each year. These seemingly ordinary actions—whether an uttered slogan, a candlelight, a song, or a single image—have enormous meaning in today’s Hong Kong, where commemorating June 4 is illegal. Consider those who have bravely upheld truth and conscience for decades, we now recognise their value.

The price for living in truth

Lee paid a high price for living in truth. Since 2019, he has been repeatedly arrested for peaceful protests such as ‘8·18’, ‘8·31’, and ‘10·1’. He was charged with organising and inciting others to participate in unauthorised assemblies. In May 2021, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison. On the 31st anniversary of June 4, he continued to commemorate with the Hong Kong Alliance and other pro-democracy activists. He was later sentenced to 14 months’ imprisonment after being charged with participating in an unauthorised assembly and inciting others to do so. Moreover, on September 9, 2021, Lee, then chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, and two vice chairpersons, Albert Ho Chun-yan and Chow Hang-tung, were charged under Hong Kong’s national security law with inciting to subvert state power. The trial has not yet begun, and the presiding judge indicated that the trial won’t start this year. Lee has remained in custody while completing his sentence. His wife, Elisabeth Tang, was also arrested last year on allegations of colluding with foreign or external forces to endanger national security.

The struggle of memory against forgetting

In Lee’s migration, he said, ‘I have no regrets but am full of gratitude. I thank the Lord for the opportunity to dedicate myself to the labour movement since graduating from the University of Hong Kong, building the 30-year-old Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. I believe only when workers join hands and organise independent unions can they rectify social injustices and transform their destinies. I also thank the support of the citizens of Hong Kong for entrusting me to be their representative in the legislature for 20 years, advocating for labour rights, improving livelihood, speaking up for the vulnerable and fighting for democracy. I am also a member of the Standing Committee of the Hong Kong Alliance for 32 years, struggling for a democratic China. If I must go to jail to affirm my will, then so be it.’

Every year on the evening of June 4, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of candles illuminate Victoria Park in Hong Kong, to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. However, in 2020, this tradition abruptly ceased. Around the same time last year, pro-establishment groups hosted a carnival in Victoria Park, which they intend to hold again this year from June 1st to 5th. The memories of June 4, Victoria Park, and candlelight are deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of Hong Kong people. Yet, the Chinese Communist Party deliberately seeks to eradicate these memories. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Let us not forget that those seemingly tranquil years were carried on the shoulders of determined people.

This year, we will join other civil organisations in holding a June 4 rally to commemorate what happened 35 years ago and to carry on the spirit of Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and democracy. For more details:

Date: 2nd June (Sun)

Time: 2:30pm-5 pm

Venue: Parliament Square, Westminster, London, SW1P 3BD

Organisers: Amnesty International UK, China Deviants, Democracy for Hong Kong(D4HK), HK Labour Rights Monitor

Equipment support: Fight for Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong (SWHK)