Tens of thousands gathered Saturday for Hong Kong’s commemoration of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown despite many young activists turning their backs on the candlelit vigil as calls grow for greater autonomy from China.
The vigil, which each year draws tens of thousands to the city’s Victoria Park, 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.
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 the 2014 student-led pro-democracy rallies to gain concessions from China on political reform for Hong Kong, and a growing number of student groups have now broken away from the event.
Many student groups boycotted it to hold alternative events. A small group of pro-independence activists also ran onto the main stage before the vigil began, demanding Hong Kong break away.
But the park still became a sea of candles as residents paid tribute to the Tiananmen victims — organisers estimated 125,000 had attended, down from last year’s 135,000.
They sang protest songs and chanted “Fight to the end” as footage of the bloody crackdown was shown on big screens.
One young student who took the stage said those boycotting the event did not represent the entire younger generation, to loud applause.
“This is a question of righteousness, so we persevere in coming here,” a tearful Tong Hiu-yan, 21, told the crowds.
However, students at a forum at Hong Kong University said they felt little connection with the traditional commemoration.
“We’re the new generation — it is more meaningful for us to do this. We have to stand against the Chinese regime, but we also have to think about Hong Kong’s future,” said student Raven Kwok, 20, among around 400 who had gathered for the forum.
The president of HKU’s student union, Althea Suen, said the fight was now about democracy for Hong Kong.
Building a democratic China was “not our responsibility”, she said.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students — a founding member of the alliance that organises the vigil — also stayed away this year, saying the event had “lost touch”.
Some in the park said the event could be improved by seeking more discussion with newly emerged groups, but that without it the memory of Tiananmen could die.
“I feel really sad about this, even though I wasn’t born (then),” Cecilia Ng, 19, told AFP. “Many of my classmates don’t know or understand what happened.”
Eva Wong, 36, remembers her own teachers crying in front of pupils after the June 4 crackdown in 1989.
“Some day it might happen again if we don’t fight it,” said Wong.
Despite lower numbers than last year, organiser Albert Ho said there was no such regular protest gathering “in the history of mankind”.
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.
Some student groups have backed the vigil saying the Tiananmen protests and crackdown helped politicise a new generation and have organised forums to explain its impact to Hong Kongers.
On the mainland, police detained several activists linked to commemoration events while “Tiananmen Mothers” — an association of parents who lost children during the violence — were surrounded by security forces as they visited the graves of their loved ones on Saturday.
Tiananmen Square itself was also heavily policed.