Young activists will turn their backs on Hong Kong’s commemoration of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on Saturday amid growing calls in the city for greater autonomy from China.
The vigil, which each year draws tens of thousands, has caused a widening rift in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp between those who believe the victims of the crackdown should be remembered and those who see the event’s message as increasingly irrelevant.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong is the only location on Chinese soil to see a major commemoration to mark the military’s brutal crushing of pro-democracy protests in central Beijing in 1989, with residents gathering en masse in Victoria Park every year.
But young activists from the new “localist” movement say Hong Kong should push for its own autonomy, even independence, rather than the democratisation of the mainland, which is part of the vigil’s main message.
Localism grew out of the failure of mass pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to gain concessions from China on political reform for Hong Kong.
A growing number of student groups have now broken away from the event.
“For this generation, we want to put emphasis on fighting for democracy in Hong Kong,” said Althea Suen, president of the Hong Kong University Student Union (HKUSU).
Suen added that building a democratic China was “not our responsibility”.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, a founding member of the alliance that organises the vigil, will also not participate this year.
“The alliance has lost touch with Hong Kongers,” said Jocelyn Wong of HKFS.
“The candlelight vigil has not made any progress in the past 27 years.”
Others were more acerbic in their criticism.
Shue Yan University student union likened the organisers of the vigil to “pimps and bawds who run a brothel after they got raped themselves” on a Facebook post late last month.
HKU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) will hold alternative forums at the same time as the vigil Saturday evening.
The leader of the new pro-independence Hong Kong National Party will speak at CUHK.
“Although the younger generation also feels sorry for the sacrifices of the students in 1989…they don’t share the same memory of Chinese identity with the older generation,” the party said in a statement Saturday.
Vigil organiser, the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said although it had not achieved its ultimate goal of getting Chinese authorities to admit to the crackdown, it had helped keep the memory alive.
Richard Tsoi of the alliance said if the vigil was axed, Tiananmen would be rendered a “non-issue” due to repression from Beijing.
Hundreds — by some estimates more than a thousand — died after the Communist Party sent tanks to crush demonstrations in the square in the heart of Beijing, where student-led protesters had staged a peaceful seven-week sit-in to demand democratic reforms.
The protests are branded a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” by Chinese authorities and many on the mainland remain unaware of the crackdown.
Tsoi hopes for a turnout of more than 100,000 people Saturday, similar to numbers in recent years, although heavy rain may keep some away.
Newly formed political party Demosisto, founded by pro-democracy student leader Joshua Wong, set up street stalls near Victoria Park in the afternoon to promote self-determination for the city.
Members of the party, which supports the vigil, will also be attending the event.
Some student groups have backed the vigil saying that the Tiananmen protests and crackdown helped politicise a new generation and have organised forums to explain its impact to Hong Kongers.