Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam is one of 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists charged with subversion under the National Security Law for running in a political primary last year. A former journalist for the BBC and local media outlet Stand News, Ho gained recognition in 2019 after she livestreamed the July 21 triad subway attack in Yuen Long, a watershed moment in the 2019 protests, and continued to do so even when she was assaulted herself. In 2020, Ho quit journalism to run for the Legislative Council and entered into the pro-democracy camp’s unofficial primary election that July. She was arrested along with every other primary candidate for “conspiring to subvert state power,” and was charged with 46 others on February 28, 2021. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In a series of handwritten letters from prison, Ho continues to reflect on her own situation as well as on current events in Hong Kong. Her latest letter, dated June 3, focuses on the significance of the annual June 4 candlelit vigil in Victoria Park, which was banned by Hong Kong authorities this year for the second time running. Between 2015 and 2018, annual turnout at the vigil saw a steady decline amid infighting in the pro-democracy camp between traditional “pan-democrats” and “localists.” Many young people who identified with the then-ascendant localist movement said they saw little in common between their cause and the student protests in 1989. In 2016, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the city’s oldest and largest student group, boycotted the vigil.
In her letter, posted to her Patreon account, Ho writes about her own disaffection with the vigil in years past, and how her perception of the event and its significance changed following the 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong. Amid a continued effort by Chinese authorities to wipe out memories of the 1989 crackdown–and increasingly, to rewrite the narrative of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests–Ho reflects on the purpose of memory, and what obligations Hong Kong people have to preserve and transmit collective memories to future generations.
CDT has translated Ho’s letter from Cantonese below, following our earlier translation of her first letter from prison. Words and phrases originally written in English are italicized.
Is “Memory” the Only True Form of “Legacy”?
By Gwyneth Ho
This has nothing to do with the main text, but I just remembered that not too long ago I learned the difference between “victim” and “sufferer” from Chow Hang-tung during a media interview about China’s rights defenders.
There is no legal precedent for “subversion of state power” in Hong Kong. Therefore, in my record (prison terminology for legal files) sits a large pile of simplified Chinese characters, all of which are defense documents for subversion/incitement cases in mainland China. The most recent case was in 2019, involving the printing of the words “Remember Eight Liquor [jǐu, a pun on nine] Six Four” on a bottle of homemade liquor. (The charge was eventually changed to “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”)
Remember Eight Nine Six Four, subversion of state power. There’s only one angle from which this string of words won’t give you vertigo.
Of course, “memory” cannot be subverted—after all, it is a mental, conscious activity, unknown to others if left unsaid—but its manifestations, whether as vast as a hundred thousand candles, or as small as a piece of discarded paper, have power far beyond the carrier of the memory itself. Power beyond what a regime can tolerate.
And today, this reality has finally been revealed.
The obsession with a “great reconciliation” is sometimes quite puzzling; in fact, under the right circumstances constant discussion, debate, and confrontation can promote the renewal and deepening of ideas; even if the words are fierce, they keep the conversation alive. (For a year or two, opposition voices actually encouraged people to go to Victoria Park.) The reason why “June 4” can trigger such fierce debate is that it has been the most important source of moral impetus for Hong Kong’s democratic movement for so long; but in the years before 2019, as Hong Kong’s localist movement experienced ups and downs, “to go or not to go to Victoria Park” monopolized the “June 4” debate.
The more important question has been overlooked: amid drastic changes in the city, what is the significance of June 4 to Hong Kong?
As the first half of that question continues to evolve, how can the answer to the second half remain unchanged? “If candlelight cannot illuminate every aspect of our lives, we can only see each other in Victoria Park every year,” read the stickers scattered just outside the park. From burning a copy of the Basic Law on the Hong Kong Alliance’s stage, to the encircling crowds at football stadiums, or the marches to the Liaison Office … in fact, people have been experimenting with alternative events all along. “June 4” is not equivalent to Victoria Park, and it should not stop at Victoria Park.
The “Go to Victoria Park” faction has a rather hardened view of the younger generation: that it is indifferent to mainland China, has no sense of their Chinese identity, is localist, tends toward radicalism, and belittles the importance of memory and legacy.
But like all polarized political disputes, the discussion about June 4 and Hong Kong, from the start, should not have been so dualistic.
Allow me to share my perspective as someone born after June 4. I used to think that Victoria Park, and even the candlelight vigil, was not that important: not because I rejected mainland China, but rather because of my understanding of it. I’ve always paid attention to rights protection cases in mainland China. I am more moved by the faces of contemporary human rights defenders than by history books.
Before 2019, I only visited Victoria Park once. I stood on the football pitch, watching the ceremonies, the testimonies, and the songs (coincidentally, there were some singles by local people that year …), but so little attention was paid to current Chinese activists. I couldn’t help but wonder, of all the Hong Kong people who go to light a candle year after year, did any care about the people in China right now? I always felt uncomfortable with Victoria Park, and I didn’t plan to go again.
If memory stagnates and fails to resonate with the present, it will become a mere passing shadow in people’s minds.
These are just my personal feelings (after all, these things mean different things to different people). But to be frank, the people I truly value, to one degree or another, have all followed the trajectory of 1989.
For me personally, history converged with the present on June 4, 2020. Although, looking back now, it seems like it passed by in just a flash.
Before June 4, 2020, Hong Kong experienced a turmoil described by some commentators as a “chopped up June 4.” Although they pale in comparison, we also have our own blood debts—it’s no longer about identity, humanitarianism, or interdependence, but about the intense pain that every generation has failed to avoid; but government power defined the June 4 event as illegal; candlelight, football pitches, and crowds were for so long a natural part of the urban landscape, but their certainty was finally uprooted.
When the guarantee (or assumption) of “legality” disappears, the line between the mourners and the mourned finally begins to blur.
The letter of objection forced every Hong Konger who took mourning for granted to question: is “memory” the only collective responsibility of the Hong Kong people? Is “memory” the only true meaning of “legacy”?
I still remember the scene in Victoria Park that night. Those flags and slogans, the kind rarely seen there on June 4, lifted us from heaviness and into a soaring, defiant atmosphere of rebellious pride.
I don’t even remember whether there were any good pictures produce[d] for foreign media on June 4, 2020. Maybe by that time the photos had lost their importance. No matter how grave the motivation, action is always uplifting. Mourning, too, can be invigorating. The point isn’t to preserve memory—it doesn’t matter if the people in Victoria Park remember or even know those unnamed human rights defenders who are still standing in the dark. When the will to resist is galvanized, the legacy is carried on.
Since 2019, for Hong Kongers, June 4 has transformed from a memory to a juxtaposition. Without a doubt, the regime’s penchant for eliminating memory is tyrannical, but as we think about how to transfer memory down to the next generation, we also need to answer a question: As we suffer our own personal trauma (though they differ in degree), what is the connection between the memory of June 4 and local resistance in Hong Kong beyond our disputes over identity?
Beyond the blind pursuit of justice, the bloody streets, and the gunshots, there is a gloom; the cynicism caused by intense shock, the speed at which powerlessness begets collective forgetting, the impotence of overseas exiles.
Memory is an unreliable thing, often intertwined with—and indistinguishable from—forgetting.
In 2014, Australia-based journalist Louisa Lim published “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” in which, for the first time, a series of photos from the scene of the June 4 crackdown in Chengdu were released, alongside eyewitness accounts of the incident, which took nearly 100 lives. The reality is that in addition to Beijing, the resistance efforts in Harbin, Changchun, Shenyang, Jinan, Hangzhou, Chengdu, and many other cities have never been properly documented. [From “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”:]
Over the past quarter-century, the events of those seven hot summer weeks across China have become telescoped into one single word: Tiananmen. […] But Beijing’s demonstrations were not the only ones, nor were they the only ones to be suppressed. What happened in 1989 was a nationwide movement, and to allow this to be forgotten is to minimize its scale ….
Although the degree is incomparable, how similar is this to the unknown regional protests that broke out in multiple places from 2019 to 2020, but were not recorded by the media? Chengdu was only written about 25 years after the fact. In the same way, Li Wangyang’s experience only became widely known in Hong Kong and the world in 2012. The memory of June 4 has been so carefully guarded and left so incomplete that it has ossified into a totem.
We wait to learn our fate, as if it has already been laid out before us–is this what they experienced in the past? Those who pressed up against the red line over and over, who were imprisoned and then released again and again, were completely forgotten by the world and the society they inhabited. With nowhere to turn for help, they could only persist in unshareable memories; while the free people beyond the border “commemorated” them year after year, their hair turned from black to gray, then fell away.
Is this not the Hong Kong of ten years hence that everyone is gradually coming to dread?
Precisely because memory will be extinguished, and history will be covered up, we must not stop at “memory.” If memory only occurs in the mind, and is maintained only at the level of mental/conscious activities, it eventually becomes nothing more than a personal recollection.
Perhaps real legacy is to bear memory, and then to create a new collective memory. This is the way to keep a 30-year-old thing alive in the face of an ever-changing reality.
Moreover, it must be visible. Before the ground becomes still, and all sounds of protest fall silent.
I’ve been wondering, if all the people we respect—those who have been silenced by secret interrogations, [court-]appointed lawyers, and gag orders—had had the (relatively) immense platform of the Hong Kong courts, what would they have done with it?
The question might forever remain at the level of speculation. But I still hope that they might have the opportunity to know that in a Hong Kong prison across the river, under the same regime, there are also people accused of “subverting state power,” and who have persisted in mourning June 4, despite being warned that doing so would be illegal. I’ve read their (and their defense lawyers’) written statements over and over again, statements that they may not even have had the opportunity to read in court. I’m not emotional about it: like other cases, you read and focus while taking notes, jot down useful and inspiring portions. But I know that in this era and space, even just the act of reading holds a different meaning.
In 2013, laborer Gu Yimin applied to hold a June 4 commemorative parade and was sentenced to 18 months in prison by the Changshu City Court of Jiangsu Province for “inciting subversion of state power.” The defense speeches of He Huixin and Liu Weiguo, the lawyers representing him, are excerpted as follows:
The citizen’s right to free speech is in the constitution, and has not been transferred to the government … While people are in this world, some rights are non-transferable, including the right to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness …. According to the constitution, all power in China currently belongs to the people. Of course sovereignty belongs to the people …
… As far as laws that infringe on the rights of the people are concerned, if … it is impossible to achieve a law’s purpose, the means are therefore inappropriate. There is an old saying: sorting silk threads improperly only tangles them more. Even if you kill all the crowing roosters, you cannot stop the coming dawn.