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Thirty-four Years After Tiananmen, 'Freedom is like Air' says Hongkonger

A Hong Kong activist remembers the Tiananmen crackdown, explaining why he is moved by a sense of urgency to protect civic freedoms before it's too late.



A screen displays images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, while broadcasting news about their recent call at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, China, July 29, 2022. (© REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

June 4 is a symbolic date for the people of Hong Kong. It is the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, when the Chinese government charged on student protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

Everything to do with the date was actively censored in mainland China. But in Hong Kong, it was a day to celebrate freedom ー until a couple of years ago. Citizens gathered every year at Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil to remember the human cost of Beijing's bloody crackdown. 

That changed in July 2020, when the Chinese government introduced the Hong Kong National Security Law and robbed the relatively independent city of rights previously taken for granted. The candlelight vigil in Victoria Park was banned. Moreover, citizens no longer enjoyed freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, or freedom of the press. 

It has been almost three years since the national security law came into force. In that short time, independent media have been forced to close, pro-democracy politicians and protesters have been arrested, and citizens have fled abroad. 

Today, how are Hongkongers living abroad engaged in the issue? Moreover, what is the continuing significance of June 4, a good 34 years since that moment that changed history? 

JAPAN Forward sat down for an interview with William Lee, a pro-democracy Hong Kong activist living in Japan, to find out. 

William Lee sits down for an interview in Tokyo on June 1. (© JAPAN Forward)

Losing the Normality of Democracy

Lee is now almost 30 years old and has lived in Tokyo since 2018. He first came to Japan because he was interested in the culture. But after graduating from university in Hong Kong, he decided to come here to live. 

In the interview, he speaks of his life in Hong Kong with great fondness. He has always been interested in expressing his views within a democratic system, he says.

"I was once arrested during a protest when I was a teenager in Hong Kong," he explains. "But that was a different time." 

He's referring to when Hong Kong was governed under the "one country, two systems" principle which applied when the city was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Maintaining this principle, in fact, was a condition for the handover. It was expected that the city would continue its own self-rule under this principle. And in the following years, many touted Hong Kong as an oasis of civic freedom under the wider umbrella of mainland China. 


Those freedoms slowly and surely eroded over the following two decades, however. In 2019, Lee watched in horror from Japan as TV reports documented the Chinese government's crackdown on the citizens of Hong Kong while protests welled up in the city. 

The same year he even returned briefly to participate in the protests ー and was arrested. An account of his experienced was detailed in an NHK article published in 2022

"The freedom which was normal for us was suddenly taken away," Lee reflected to JAPAN Forward

A Hong Kong protest in Shibuya, Tokyo, in 2022.

Lee's Decision to Stay in Japan

Shortly afterward, Lee came back to Japan and has since resigned himself to not going back to Hong Kong. It's for his safety, and that of his family, who are still living in the city, he says. 

In Japan, he leads the association Stand With Hong Kong Japan and participates regularly in international forums. He also holds press conferences at the fringe of events such as the G7 Summit. His goal is to bring awareness to what is happening in Hong Kong. And also to explain how the civil liberties of Hong Kong citizens are not protected even when living abroad. 

He shares examples, such as the student who was arrested upon her return to Hong Kong because she participated in protests while living in Japan. 

This is not just about "other people," he points out. It is an issue that affects everyone.

Protecting Democracy Everywhere It Exists

Life as part of a Hong Kong awareness activist group is stressful, admits Lee. He highlights how there are several organizations like his, and they all have strict security measures to protect their members. 

"We make sure not to let just anyone become an executive committee member," he explains. "Only people we trust."

Fellow Hongkongers sometimes sense they are being followed, Lee adds, citing examples. Some avoid going to Chinese restaurants for fear that their activities would be conveyed to the Chinese embassy in Japan. Many protesters cover their faces when participating in demonstrations, fearing repercussions upon their return to Hong Kong. 

"It's already affecting the lives of people here [in Japan]. Why is it that we have to think so deeply about this issue when all we want is to live freely?" he reflected. 


Looking toward Japan, Lee shares a message imploring people to protect their democracy. 

"We in Hong Kong didn't think that our freedoms would be taken away. I sometimes wonder whether if we had done more, maybe this situation could have been different," says Lee.  

"Let's not let that happen in Japan. Freedom is precious, it's like air, you don't realize you need it until you suddenly don't have it." 

Liz Truss, United Kingdom former Prime Minister, speaks at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China meeting in Tokyo in February 2023.

Getting the Attention of Lawmakers

There are lawmakers in Japan who have been advocating for the protection of Hongkongers, as well as ethnic minorities from the Xinjiang region, Southern Mongolia, and Tibet. 

Japanese parliamentarians set up a bipartisan committee to discuss these issues. Moreover, a group of parliamentarians from several democracies have formed the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. Their mission is to make it clear this issue should be addressed around the world. JAPAN Forward covered this group when they met in Tokyo in February 2023. 

Yet, Lee says there is still plenty of room for the Japanese government to take stronger steps. 

For one, he thinks that Japan should impose sanctions on China for its behavior stifling human rights. 

"We have seen that with Russia and the war in Ukraine, the West is willing to impose sanctions. I think we should do the same with China," says Lee. 

In addition, he posits that Japan should take stronger measures against the Chinese overseas police stations in the country. Although by no means exhaustive, these have been documented in Tokyo's Akihabara district and in Kyushu in Southwestern Japan. Lee is strongly critical of the fact that the government has yet to take a firm position on their presence. 

"There have been several media reports, so at this point, the government should be aware of the issue. Why are they still doing nothing about this," he questioned. 

human rights
Peace March at Tokyo Ginza street by people from Myanmar, Cambodia, Iran, Ukraine, Belarus, Tibet, Uyghur, Southern Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. December 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of FB/ MI & FF)

The Long Road Ahead

The Hongkonger does admit that there are challenges in being an activist in Japan. This is a country where, he thinks, "participating in demonstrations in itself is considered a little strange."

However, he doesn't seem discouraged by the prospect. "Japan is one of the countries in the world with the most freedom. We want to protect it," says Lee. 


Where will he be on June 4? His group, together with other related associations, will be holding a candlelight vigil at the Shinjuku Station South Exit in Tokyo to remember the victims of Tiananmen. 

Earlier the same afternoon, there is a lecture by former student activists who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. That will be held in the local community center of Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward.

In the morning, there will also be a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in Japan

Lee also shares how to find more information about these events

As we say goodbye, the Hongkonger explains why he is moved by a sense of urgency, as though he needs to act before it's too late. 

"We feel like we are under a time limit. Just like in Hong Kong, or in Tiananmen [in 1989], we think everything will be fine ー until everything changes. It's scary to live like that." 


Author: Arielle Busetto

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