Huge crowds turned out for a mass candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on Tuesday evening marking 30 years since China’s bloody Tiananmen crackdown, a gathering tinged with symbolism as the city struggles to preserve its own cherished freedoms.
The eye-catching spectacle — in which tens of thousands of Hong Kongers clutched candles, sang defiant songs and listened to emotional speeches — is the only place in China where such commemorations can be safely held.
The semi-autonomous financial hub has hosted an annual vigil every year since tanks and soldiers smashed into protesters near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 — an illustration of the city’s unusual freedoms and vibrant political scene.
Organised by a group of veteran democracy activists, the vigil demands justice for victims and for China to embrace democracy.
But in more recent years the mass gatherings have taken on an increasingly contemporary significance as angst builds over Hong Kong’s future.
Organisers were hoping for a big turnout for Tuesday night’s vigil, fuelled by both the milestone of the thirtieth anniversary itself and a renewed furore over defending the city from an increasingly assertive Beijing.
See also: HKFP’s complete coverage of the Tiananmen Massacre commemorations.
This year’s vigil comes at a time of huge controversy over plans by the city’s pro-Beijing government to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland for the first time.
The proposed law has sparked a backlash from figures in the legal and business communities as well as the largest demonstrations Hong Kong has seen since 2014, a year when pro-democracy protesters took over key intersections of the city for more than two months.
Tuesday’s vigil also comes just weeks after key leaders of those protests were jailed.
See also: ‘We don’t need to chant slogans’ – 100 attend ‘alternative’ Hong Kong Tiananmen vigil
“We gather here to stop the monster that massacred people at Tiananmen 30 years ago,” singer Anthony Wong told the crowds, which filled up all the football pitches in the city’s Victoria Park before spilling out to the sides.
“We fear that this monster will run down to (Hong Kong), and we fear that this monster will… destroy our next generation,” he added.
Yue Wai-chun, a 40-year-old teacher, told HKFP that she had attended the vigil for a number of years: “10 years ago I had more faith in the Chinese government. But recently I haven’t felt optimistic at all.”
Gary Chiu, 35, attended the vigil with his wife and their young daughter. He felt those pushing the extradition plans and what happened at Tiananmen were linked.
“Both are caused by the mainland China regime,” he told AFP.
See also: ‘This video will be censored in China’: Foreign consulates mark Tiananmen Massacre anniversary
Earlier in the day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the 1989 protest movement as “heroic” which he said still stirred “the conscience of freedom-loving people around the world.”
“Over the decades that followed, the United States hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society. Those hopes have been dashed,” Pompeo said.
Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech and assembly rights unseen on the Chinese mainland under a 50-year handover agreement between former colonial power Britain and China.
But many fear those liberties are being eroded and have questioned Beijing’s commitment to that deal.
In recent years protest leaders have been jailed and banned from politics while the disappearance into Chinese custody of a group of Beijing-critical booksellers rattled nerves.
Reverend Chu Yiu-ming speaks at the Victoria Park vigil. Chu was a pivotal figure in Operation Yellowbird, where Hongkongers helped wanted Tiananmen activists to flee the country.
He was also recently convicted over his involvement in the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. pic.twitter.com/SYW2y5etyi
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) June 4, 2019
Tiananmen survivors have previously appeared at past vigils but in recent years some have found themselves turned away by local authorities.
On Sunday, former protest leader Feng Congde was barred from entering the city on arrival at the airport and deported, organisers said.
Attendance at the vigil has remained above 100,000 for the last decade according to an organiser-run tally, but the numbers have slipped the last four years after the 2014 democracy protests failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
See also: The students will prevail’ – Rare shots of Tiananmen Square, before and after the 1989 massacre
Many younger Hong Kongers have since embraced “localism”, which focuses on preserving local Cantonese culture and freedoms and regards mainland China as a hostile entity subsuming their city.
The proportion of those attending the vigil aged under 30 dropped from 55 percent to 31 percent between 2010 and 2018 according to surveys while student unions have boycotted the vigil the last five years.
However organisers this year gave a turnout figure of 180,000, a joint record with 2014.
Police, who have historically given much lower figures, said 37,000 turned out at the peak.
As the vigil comes to a close, speakers onstage make an impassioned plea to attendees to join the anti-extradition march on June 9. pic.twitter.com/MF8XvfEnTG
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) June 4, 2019
Ahead of the vigil, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that she hoped that any public gatherings would take place “quietly and in an orderly manner.”
“A lot of people have memories about today’s date, and for the government, it is also proof that Hong Kong is a free place,” Lam told reporters. “We respect the public’s freedom of speech and assembly, which are protected under the Basic Law.”
Asked if she would reflect Hongkongers’ views to the central government, and her opinion on the recent comments by Chinese defence minister General Wei Fenghe claiming the massacre was “correct,” Lam did not reply.
Annual polling from the University of Hong Kong has shown consistent replies with a majority saying the Tiananmen students were right to protest and that China was wrong to suppress them.
One figure has changed markedly. In the last five years the number of respondents saying China’s human rights situation is now worse than 1989 has more than doubled from just 15 percent to 33 percent in the latest poll released Monday.
Towards the end of the vigil, speakers onstage made an impassioned plea for attendees to join an anti-extradition march on Sunday.
A small group of protesters led by the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats then proceeded to China’s office in Hong Kong in Sai Wan.
By Holmes Chan, and AFP’s Jerome Taylor and Elaine Yu.
The Hong Kong Free Press #PressForFreedom 2019 Funding Drive seeks to raise HK$1.2m to support our non-profit newsroom and dedicated team of multi-media, multi-lingual reporters. HKFP is backed by readers, run by journalists and is immune to political and commercial pressure. This year’s critical fundraiser will provide us with the essential funds to continue our work into next year.