Hong Kong remembers Tiananmen -- and rallies for democracy of its own

Hong Kong remembers Tiananmen -- and rallies for democracy of its own
Students and staff gather at the main campus of the University of Hong Kong on June 4 to mark the anniversary of China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (Alex Hofford / European Pressphoto Agency)

Hong Kong residents held vigils Thursday, as they do every June 4, to remember China's deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

But this year, the gatherings were less a mournful rite and more an effort to keep alive their own fight for rights.


This year's anniversary came just half a year after the fading of protests by the so-called Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong's own battle for democratic rights. It also came less than two weeks before the next round of protests, which are expected when the local legislature seeks to adopt a new framework mandated by Beijing for future elections in the semiautonomous territory.

Critics say the proposal confers a semblance of democracy but in fact limits the nomination system for Hong Kong's highest office, stifling a real choice of candidates.

"This is our only way to stand up to Beijing," said Katherine Choi, 63, dressed in black. The retired teacher recalled coming to the first Tiananmen vigil when she was six months pregnant and said she has been attending every year since.

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government deployed tanks and armed troops to crush the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters.

In the years since, even as Beijing has sought to erase all memory of the event, the crackdown has been marked annually here in Hong Kong with marches and candlelight vigils, which have continued even after the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty 18 years ago.

Despite a few other splinter gatherings across the city, the vigil in Victoria Park still had a substantial showing at 135,000 people, according to the organizers, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements. It was the lowest turnout in the last several years.

Participants filled six soccer fields and beyond, bearing a sea of flickering votive candles with a scattering of yellow umbrellas, the symbol of 10-week-long pro-democracy demonstrations last fall and winter.

Thursday's gathering at the University of Hong Kong drew about 2,000 people, overflowing the Sun Yat-sen plaza, named after the founding father of modern China who was an alumnus. The crowd of mostly young people said they came because they were tired of the ritualistic slogan-chanting and song-belting at the traditional vigil.

"We need more inspiration and less ceremonial stuff," said Hayes Luk, 24, a master's degree candidate in biotechnology at the University of Hong Kong who went to his first vigil at age 6.

Jackie Zhang, a junior who hails from central China, said his parents as college students participated in the Tiananmen protests but have since become cowed by the repercussions they suffered.

However, for Zhang and all those on campus Thursday night, the gathering wasn't so much about remembering Tiananmen as it was about recognizing the example it represents for those pushing for democracy in Hong Kong today.

"The students who perished made a tremendous show of moral courage. How much are we ready to sacrifice for democracy?" asked Billy Fung, president of the university's student union and the gathering's organizer. "If we're to fight for democracy under a dictatorship, we must be prepared to take more rigorous action."

Law is a special correspondent.