A couple of years ago members of China's Communist Party began receiving birthday cards, they weren’t to mark their actual birth date but arguably a more important one — the day they joined the party. According to the CCP's top disciplinary watchdog, a party member's "political birthday" should be remembered and cherished as the moment they committed to hand over everything to the party.
I've never been a member of any political party but I also have a "political birthday" of sorts. It is one I share with many Hongkongers of my generation, including those in the diaspora, and it falls on June 4th.
To this day I can remember the shock, the visceral sorrow that I felt on hearing that the tanks had rolled in and shots fired at the protesters in Beijing. My life and my experiences were so different to theirs, yet I felt that I could have been one of those students.
I count that day as a kind of political awakening.
The crushing crackdown of 1989 happened at a time when Hongkongers were grappling with the reality that their city would be handed over to a regime that they and their parents had fled — some risking their lives to do so.
It made a deep impact on Hongkongers of all ages and across different walks of life, created a sense of shared trauma and formed part of the collective memory. It galvanised a generation of Hong Kong students, some became activists, some entered politics and various professions. Years later, my students would tell me how their school teachers couldn't help crying when recalling June 4th.
For the past 30 years, Hong Kong has marked the anniversary of June 4th with a candlelit vigil in Victoria Park. Since the handover, it has been the only place on Chinese soil where such an event could be held legally and without fear of retribution.
Participation has waxed and waned over the years, reflecting events in the Mainland and shifts in local politics. By 2014, with localism emerging as a political force, the vigil was denounced in some quarters as a distraction from the fight for democracy and autonomy in Hong Kong.
It was even suggested that the CCP would take comfort from the commemoration of June 4th in Hong Kong, with its chants of "End one party dictatorship, build a democratic China!". The argument went that at a time when Hongkongers, particularly the young increasingly identified exclusively as Hongkongers, the vigils signalled an attachment to a lingering sense of Chinese nationalism (even it was antithetical to the CCP).
With the government's ban on an event that has taken place uninterrupted for three decades, that argument now seems moot.
The truth is, whatever the slogans, the commemoration of June 4th in Hong Kong has always been a localised event, inextricably bound up with Hong Kong's fate, an attempt to make sense of its past and hopes for its future.
Over the years, there have been questions about the continued relevance of the mass vigils and many criticisms — some justified — about their organisation and content. As Hong Kong's political problems became more acute and Bejing's interference more aggressive, one common complaint was that it had become nothing more than formalised ritual, full of empty symbols.
On one level, this complaint was valid but on another, it misses the mark. There is power in ritual and symbols. Hong Kong's protesters have demonstrated an instinctive grasp of this with their creative use of both in the current protests.
By prohibiting the Victoria Park mass vigil under the cover of COVID-19 social distancing rules, the government has spawned more remembrances, across Hong Kong and across the world. As the spectre of the National Security Law looms over the city, perhaps some will commemorate quietly and privately. But they will remember.
I agree with Cultural Studies scholar Law Wing-sang, who said, "to bid farewell to June 4th, is to bid farewell to ourselves, to who we are".
The authorities may want us to forget who we are but it is only by remembering how we became ourselves that we can begin to imagine and to build a better version of who we can be.
Today I watched a remarkable live-streamed performance of the June 4th drama May 35th written by my friend Candace Chong. The story of a dying woman's humble and forbidden wish to pay her respects to her son, a student who died in Tiananmen Square.
It was a powerful meditation on loss, memory and resistance — a Tiananmen story that in this telling is bookended by scenes from the recent Hong Kong protests.
When memory has become a crime, then every act of remembrance is an act of resistance.