Tens of thousands of people gathered for a candlelight vigil on a humid night in Hong Kong to remember victims of the government crackdown at Tiananmen Square 23 years ago and demand freedom to protest in mainland China.
Demonstrators with megaphones competed with each other for the attention of the crowds who swirled around them in Victoria Park, vowing not to forget the crackdown, in which hundreds of protesters were killed. Some wore shirts bearing the image of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while others chanted demands that the Chinese leaders who sent troops to break up the protests in 1989 be held accountable.
“This is my first time to see so many people commemorate the dead in Tiananmen,” said Ben Liu, a 32-year-old software engineer from Shanghai who attended yesterday evening’s protest on the last day of a business trip to Hong Kong. “I wish someday we could do the same in China to voice our emotions.”
China doesn’t allow mainland events to commemorate the crackdown and is trying to ensure a smooth leadership transition at the 18th Communist Party Congress later this year. The party is seeking to maintain stability after the suspension of Politburo member Bo Xilai amid murder allegations surrounding his wife.
Tiananmen Square itself bustled with tourists yesterday, and there was no sign of increased security or protests. Dozens of police vehicles were stationed at the eastern and western approaches to the square, as they are on most days, and traffic crawled along Chang’an Avenue, the main route taken by the army tanks that flooded into the square in 1989. Tourist groups followed flag-toting guides around the area.
“The current stability-maintaining force, including the police, has effectively stopped people from doing anything on the anniversary,” said Ding Xueliang, a professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “The cost of organizing any collective action is too large, the pressure and risks on individuals too great.”
A search for “Shanghai composite” was blocked on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblog platform, after the Shanghai Composite Index closed down 64.89 points yesterday. The crackdown began overnight on June 4, 1989.
Organizers of the Hong Kong protest estimated attendance at a record 180,000 people, Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said from the platform. Local police estimated turnout at 85,000, according to an unidentified spokeswoman for the force.
This year’s anniversary is drawing more scrutiny after Bo’s ousting, legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s flight to the U.S. and the suicide last month of a man whose son was killed at Tiananmen Square.
Bo, once considered a candidate for the Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee, was stripped of his post as party secretary of the municipality of Chongqing in March. A month after that, following accusations that his wife was involved in the murder of a British businessman, he was removed from the Politburo.
In the crackdown 23 years ago, Chinese troops fired on demonstrators who had massed in the square for weeks. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing estimated a death toll exceeding 1,000, and in Hong Kong, which would return to China in 1997, about one million people marched in protest at the time.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner issued a statement on June 3 saying the U.S. encourages China to publicly account for all those who died, protect its citizens’ human rights and “end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.”
China “expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute objection” to the “unfounded criticism of China’s government,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a briefing in Beijing yesterday in response to the statement. He said it “deviated from the truth and interfered with China’s internal affairs.”
The Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for prisoners in China, estimates that the government is holding less than 12 of the thousands of people detained in the crackdown, according to a May 31 statement. The group said it hadn’t gotten a response from the government about such prisoners since September 2009. It listed the names of seven people it believes are still held.
Organizers of this year’s Hong Kong protests pressed for more people from mainland China to join the event, Lee said. Streets adjacent to the park were lined with police vans and crowds climbed on planters to get a view of screens set up on the main stage where people spoke.
“Hopefully by encouraging mainlanders and the younger generation to join the vigil, we could give the Chinese government pressure to recognize the crackdown amid China’s upcoming leadership handover,” he said.
About 77,000 people joined last year’s vigil in Hong Kong, according to police estimates. Public discontent earlier this year was credited with derailing a leadership bid by the city’s former top civil servant, while demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in 2003 and 2004 were credited with leading to the eventual resignation of Tung Chee-hwa as chief executive.