Thousands of residents turned a downtown park into a sea of candlelight Monday evening, singing songs and reciting slogans in an hourlong vigil to mark the 12th anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Organizers estimated the crowd at nearly 50,000, which would make it one of the largest such commemorations in recent years in what has become an annual June 4 ritual in Hong Kong. Neutral observers put the figure at between 20,000 and 30,000. The protests date back to the era when Hong Kong was under British control and have been tolerated by Beijing during the four years since the territory returned to Chinese sovereignty.
It is the only large-scale gathering permitted in China to mark the anniversary, and Monday's turnout eased concerns among organizers that interest in the event had begun to wane.
"It shows that the heart of Hong Kong people hasn't died," said Szeto Wah, chairman of the organizing group, known as the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China.
Many of those attending Monday's vigil were young, and a central theme of the event dealt with detailing how Communist authorities used the army to crush the student protest movement in 1989, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Although there was a heavy police presence, there were no reports of clashes with authorities. In Beijing, security was tightened around Tiananmen Square beginning early in the day, but there were no reported protests.
In many ways, the emotionally charged gathering underscored the degree of civil liberties still open to Hong Kong citizens.
However, a major speech only a few hours earlier by Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa rekindled worries about the political leadership's willingness to defend those liberties against pressure from Beijing.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of an international media convention, Tung heaped praise on Beijing's leaders, many of whom were in power at the time of the Tiananmen crackdown.
"You shall appreciate that the current leadership in China is one of the most enlightened and progressive in our history," he told delegates to a congress of the World Assn. of Newspapers. "All the foreign and international leaders who have met them are nothing but impressed."
Tung's remarks came in response to Roger Parkinson, the newspaper association's president, who had praised freedom of speech in Hong Kong but leveled a broadside at Beijing's leaders for "choosing firmly against these freedoms."
Tung has been severely criticized by pro-democracy advocates here for failing to defend Hong Kong's freedoms. Last month, the government refused entry to more than 100 followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement because they had planned to protest peacefully at a business forum attended by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
The move drew criticism from several Western governments, including the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.
Falun Gong is banned in mainland China and, although legal in Hong Kong, has been the subject of a campaign of rhetoric by Tung and other members of his leadership team, who have tended to share Beijing's description of the movement as "an evil cult."
After Tung's remarks Monday, Parkinson told reporters that at least 22 journalists are in jail in China.