Tiananmen Protesters Mark Crackdown in Annual Hong Kong Vigil

Thousands gathered in pouring rain in Hong Kong yesterday evening to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown as organizers call on Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve human rights and advance democracy.

With many dressed in the traditional mourning colors of white and black, demonstrators arrived in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for the annual candlelit vigil to remember people killed by troops 24 years ago after students calling for democracy and an end to official corruption defied orders to leave the square. About 54,000 people participated in yesterday’s vigil, according to the city’s Police Public Relations Branch.

Vigil organizers estimated the crowed at 150,000 people, the South China Morning Post reported on its website. The event ended at 9 p.m. local time, an hour earlier than scheduled, because of the rain, the Hong Kong-based newspaper said.

Xi, who took over leadership of the 82-million member Communist Party in November, has pledged to share the benefits of economic growth more equally and began a campaign against corruption, as discontent increases over the country’s widening wealth gap.

“We’ve only seen tightening instead of relaxation since Xi Jinping came on stage,” Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said on June 3. “China hasn’t taken a step further in its reform on human rights and democracy.”

Last night’s memorial is the first since China’s once-a-decade leadership transition that ended with Xi replacing Hu Jintao as president in March. China doesn’t allow events to commemorate the crackdown on the mainland.

Protests in China

China sees between 30,000 to 50,000 protests every year over issues including environmental pollution and land disputes, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said in March.

Without mentioning Tiananmen, users of Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblog service yesterday reposted a news article with remarks Premier Li Keqiang made in Germany last month, when he said: “Only if you properly look at history can you create the future.”

Sina removed the image of a candle -- widely used on the service to express mourning or convey blessings -- from a group of icons that users can post on their microblogs. Search terms blocked on Weibo yesterday included “that day,” “special day,” “massacre,” and “candle,” according to the Berkeley, Calif.-based China Digital Times website.

Tiananmen Scene

Thousands of tourists thronged Tiananmen Square on a smoggy morning yesterday, taking photos of the Gate of Heavenly Peace and its portrait of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. Traffic flowed smoothly as police vehicles stood sentry at the approaches to the square on the Avenue of Eternal Peace as they do every day.

China’s leaders and people must repudiate the crackdown, said Bao Tong, a senior party official at the time who was arrested days before the crackdown and spent seven years in prison, according to an article published June 3 in the South China Morning Post. The crackdown put an end to anti-corruption efforts, Bao said, according to the newspaper.

“Corruption, exploitation, the lack of respect for law, these had the support of tanks and machine guns,” Bao said, according to the SCMP.

In Hong Kong, about 1 million people marched in protest after the crackdown 24 years ago and vigils have occurred annually since then, with police saying that 85,000 attended in 2012. Estimates of the death toll from the crackdown ranged from between 300 and 2,600, Ezra Vogel wrote in “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.”

‘Core Message’

“The core message that vigil participants want to convey is that they hope to see democracy in China and the vindication of June 4,” Linda Li, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said by phone. “No matter who’s running the Chinese government, the message that Hong Kong people want to send to them would still be the same.”

The Hong Kong demonstration has created debate of its own. The slogan for this year’s protest -- “Love the country, love the people. That’s the Hong Kong spirit. Reverse the June 4 verdict. We will never give up.” -- drew complaints from people concerned it was meant to foster patriotism for China.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying scrapped plans for national education classes last year after students camped out at the city legislature for days in opposition. They said the classes would paint an overly favorable picture of Communist Party rule in China.

Focused Theme

“We will refocus the theme on vindicating June 4 as ‘Love the Country’ has irritated the nerve of some Hong Kong people,” the Hong Kong Alliance’s Lee said. “Patriotism has become a dirty word today.”

Leung was chosen as chief executive last year by a committee mainly comprised of businessmen, lawmakers and academics. His term runs until 2017, when China, which inherited rule of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, has pledged to allow the city’s people to elect their own leaders.

At the vigil, demonstrators braved a torrential downpour to listen to speeches and watch performances.

“It’s definitely something symbolic,” said Joshua Lee, who works in a private equity firm and has attended the event for the past five years. “It’s really a symbol of the freedom that we enjoy here, the only city in China that has that.”

For Howard Cheng, an assistant at the city’s legislative council, attending the vigil is a show of solidarity with the Chinese people.

“I believe that democracy in China and the freedom of the Chinese people is very important for Hong Kong,” Cheng said. “We’re facing the same situation.”

China’s Definition

Over the years, the Chinese government has changed the way it described the Tiananmen crackdown. It was initially called a counter-revolutionary rebellion, then a riot, then political turmoil and finally the 1989 storm, according to Vogel’s book.

In a May 31 statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. calls on China to stop harassing those who took part in the Tiananmen protests and end the “harassment of human rights activists and their families.” Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou issued a statement yesterday calling on China to respect human rights and tolerate dissent.

China has reached a “very clear conclusion about the political turmoil and all relevant issues in the late 1980s,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing on June 3. “Chinese people enjoy broad freedom and human rights. This is a fact everyone can see.”

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