Cross Country Checkup

After surviving Tiananmen, Hong Kong protester continues the fight for pro-democracy

Having narrowly escaped the violence on Tiananmen Square, Jonathan Chan now counsels young protesters during demonstrations in Hong Kong.

30 years ago, Jonathan Chan narrowly escaped the violence on Tiananmen Square

Protesters use laser pointers beam at policemen during the anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

As thousands of Hong Kongers take to the streets each week, Jonathan Chan has sought to counsel and inform protesters when demonstrations and clashes with police escalate.

The use of police force worries Chan because it may escalate an already dangerous situation even further. 30 years ago, he narrowly escaped the violence that occurred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 

"It was a total shock to us," Chan told Cross Country Checkup.

"Even when we [thought] the armies were moving in, we are thinking … maybe they will use tear gas or cops will just arrest us. We never thought they will actually come in, guns blazing, tanks rolling like that." 

On June 4, 1989, hundreds of armed soldiers descended upon Tiananmen Square in a crack down on protesters as pro-democracy demonstrations were happening on the streets. Witnesses of the event estimate that thousands were killed — gunned down by rifles or mowed over by tanks. 

Jonathan Chan moves a metal road divider with other students to make a barricade on June 4, 1989, after armed soldiers descended on Tiananmen Square. (Submitted by Jonathan Chan)

Chan was part of a group of students in Hong Kong who traveled to Beijing in support of the demonstrations taking place. He tells Checkup that he and his friends did not expect the demonstrations to turn fatal for many. 

In one particular case, Chan remembers a demonstrator getting shot in the neck after he tried to throw an empty bottle at a standing line of soldiers.

"You know, there were so many casualties," Chan remembered. 

While some of his friends have since left Asia to escape their traumatic experiences in Beijing, Chan, now 55, remains in Hong Kong to "keep up the fight" and demonstrates each week in his city. 

Sunday marks the beginning of the 11th week of protests in Hong Kong over a proposed extradition bill by the Hong Kong government.

Demonstrators have stormed government buildings and shut down Hong Kong's main airport. In response, police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear areas blocked by protesters.

Beijing intervention a 'major breach of 1 country, 2 systems' 

With clashes between police and demonstrators in Hong Kong, there are concerns that Beijing could intervene if the protests don't calm down. 

Earlier this week, dozens of armoured paramilitary vehicles have been seen parked in Shenzhen, a mainland Chinese city near the Hong Kong border. On Thursday, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the U.K., warned that Beijing would not "sit on its hands" if the Hong Kong protests get out of control. 

Dozens of armoured paramilitary vehicles are seen parked outside of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre on Thursday, Aug. 15, as hundreds of members of China's People's Armed Police were seen conducting exercises. (Reuters)

However, Josephine Chiu-Duke, an Asian studies professor at the University of British Columbia, says what Beijing is doing is a "psychological tactic." 

"They show this kind of a military force near the border region with Hong Kong in the hope that Hong Kongers will 'behave themselves' and will not escalate the protests," she said in an interview with Checkup. 

"[The Chinese government] can use many other means to control Hong Kong if they want to," Chiu-Duke continued, adding that Beijing officials could force the Hong Kong government to declare martial law as a means to control the city.

Chiu-Duke doesn't expect China to further intervene, but suggests that could change.

Leo Shin, a Hong Konger and professor of History and Asian Studies at University of British Columbia, also doesn't think China will crack down on protesters as it would be seen as a "major breach" of the region's "one country, two systems" policy. 

Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to continue to have its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" agreement. 

Police fire tear gas at anti-extradition bill protesters during clashes in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, China, August 14, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Shin says that the one party that has the real power to de-escalate the situation in Hong Kong is Chief Executive Carrie Lam. However, he says "there doesn't seem to be any intention to de-escalate" the protests on her part.

"We have come close to real major violence, and so what I am afraid of is that at some point, as the violence escalates, there will be casualties," Shin said. 

"When that happens, then we really will have crossed a border, a boundary, a line. And that might then justify an even higher level of force used by the police." 

Young people 'future and hope of Hong Kong' 

Chan says he worries that things may turn violent in Hong Kong. However, he doesn't expect the Chinese army to intervene during the Hong Kong protests as he thinks police have been successful at suppressing protesters so far. 

He's concerned about the many young Hong Kongers joining the sometimes violent demonstrations.

Still, Chan says it is important to guide the younger generations because "they are the hope and the future of Hong Kong." 

"I will encourage them to participate, but not in the manner that they are being caught or being hurt by the police," he said. 

"They're the ones who suffer the most years down the road."

About the Author

Samantha Lui

Associate Producer

Samantha Lui is an associate producer with Cross Country Checkup and has worked on As It Happens, Now or Never and The Doc Project. Before that, she worked as a reporter for CBC Sudbury and interned at Hong Kong's English daily newspaper, South China Morning Post. Follow her on Twitter @samanthalui_