Hong Kong: Tens of thousands gathered at an impassioned rally in central Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, amid a vigorous security operation on the streets and online in mainland China to block mention of the milestone.
Organisers of the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park said more than 180,000 participated – a record turnout – while police estimated 99,500 attendees.
Video tributes were played in honour of those arrested in recent weeks in the mainland for trying to commemorate the anniversary, including rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, journalist Gao Yu, and academic Xu Youyu, who all face several years imprisonment if convicted of the various charges they are accused of.
The loudest cheers of the night were reserved for a speech given by prominent mainland human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who said he was warned firmly by state security forces not to attend.
Mr Teng, a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the ruling Communist Party had elevated its notorious “stability maintenance” to a political cleansing with its spate of arrests and detentions.
“They arrest journalists, and then arrest journalists who try to bring light to those arrested,” he said.
“But you can’t kill us all,” he added, a reference to the slogan often repeated after a triad-style knifing of Ming Pao newspaper editor Kevin Lau earlier this year.
The crowd present was noticeably younger than previous years, reflecting a shift in the role of the vigil from defiant remembrance to a more urgent platform of political expression amid concerns of greater Communist Party influence, particularly since Hong Kong has been under the administration of chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
“It’s becoming a worry for us, because freedom of speech and the media is becoming endangered,” Doris Tsang, a 21-year-old communications student said. “We want to protect our freedoms.”
Political tensions are particularly heightened in Hong Kong amid disagreement among legislators as to how to negotiate the terms of universal suffrage – the right for its people to elect its chief executive, rather than a council – with mainland China.
Near Victoria Park, dozens of police were required to protect a small group of pro-Communist Party supporters who played a video denying the deaths of Tiananmen and calling on passing Hong Kongers to “let go of the burden” and forget the past.
“Freedom of speech, right?” one man in the group taunted, as numerous incensed Hong Kongers challenged them to brawl.
In Tsim Sha Tsui, a bigger-than-expected, and considerably rowdier crowd of several thousand “nativists” – led by radical elements within Hong Kong’s pan-democratic camp who are seeking a breakaway from mainland China – stood off with police as several protesters burnt the national flag.
“The vigil has been held for more than two decades, and the significance of the vigil is diminishing,” firebrand legislator Wong Yuk-man, who led the breakaway demonstration, said. “It is now no more than a routine ceremonial event.”
In central Beijing on Wednesday, heightened security checks caused lengthy queues to bank up on entrances to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Armoured police vehicles and paramilitary patrolled major intersections.
A spate of arrests and detentions in mainland China – Amnesty International says the figure has reached 66 – in connection to the anniversary had many believe mainland visitors would think twice before attending the vigil in Hong Kong, for fear of reprisals upon their return.
But Nadia Li, a 19-year-old philosophy student from Beijing, said she had friends who had travelled to Hong Kong for the candlelight vigil, and that she had also met attendees who hailed from Chongqing and Wuhan – including those around her age.
“It’s not like they [the Chinese government] can see us among this huge crowd,” she said.
At least one person in the crowd, 88-year-old Jimmy Keung, was happy to see many new young faces.
The retired naval officer used to smuggle stacks of newspapers across the border to Shenzhen and claimed to never have missed a candlelight vigil since 1989, when an estimated one million marched in Hong Kong to support the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in the mainland.
With his advanced years he said he gets tired quickly and wants younger people in Hong Kong to take his place.
“I come early and when [the park] fills up I leave,” he said. “I leave, I give my spot to the young man.”
The story Tiananmen Square massacre: 180,000 attend Hong Kong candlelight vigil to mark 25th anniversary first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.