Photographer: Dale De La Rey/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong Marks Tiananmen Amid Tension Over China’s Influence

  • City’s Pro-democracy movement divided over legacy of Tiananmen
  • Washington, Taiwan also mark anniversary of crackdown

A vigil in Hong Kong to commemorate China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy supporters almost three decades ago was briefly disrupted by protesters demanding independence, underscoring the tensions dividing the city over how best to counter China’s growing control over the city.

The Saturday evening event was likely the world’s largest memorial in honor of hundreds of demonstrators killed in 1989 when Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing. Still, many of Hong Kong’s biggest student groups are shunning the event, saying democracy activists should focus on defending Hong Kong and not changing China.

Candlelight vigil held in 2015.

Photographer: Dale De La Rey/AFP via Getty Images

"We don’t think we have the ability or responsibility for building a democratic China,” said Jocelyn Wong, external vice president of the Student Union of Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We aren’t having real democracy even in Hong Kong.”

A crowd estimated at about 125,000 poured onto six soccer fields in Victoria Park, filling the grounds with lights from thousands of candles. Participants surrounded the Goddess of Democracy Statue in the center of the park next to a pedestal engraved with the phrase, "the spirit of those who sacrifice for democracy will thrive forever." The crowd held their candles to the sky and faced the stage, where organizers of the vigil directed a program including eulogies and singing.

“There has never been so many people who have for so many years gathered together on the same day, June 4, at the same place to protest the same cause against tyranny,” said Albert Ho, a member of the committee behind the vigil. “We the Hong Kong people have made a historical record. We are proud of Hong Kong.”

For a QuickTake explainer on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, click here.

Shortly before Saturday’s event began, protesters -- some in black T-shirts and wearing masks -- ran into the vigil carrying banners that said "Hong Kong independence" and “Separate from PRC Declare Independence." They clashed with representatives of the the vigil organizer’s and some were pushed to the ground. They continued to shout as they were hustled away from the stage and the ceremony resumed.

"I respect them but if they want to destroy the gathering it’s not appropriate for them to disrupt,” said Tszy Yan, 22, a worker on a farm who attended the vigil. “They can make other events to say what they want to say but we need to respect each other. I was a little scared with all these policemen chasing after them. ”

In the nearly 30 years since the crackdown, China has grown into the world’s second-biggest economy and its influence pervades Hong Kong, which in 1997 reverted to China after 156 years of British rule. Hong Kong democracy activists are divided over how best to keep Chinese control in check and defend the autonomy that Beijing pledged to accept under the "One Country, Two Systems" scheme agreed to at the time of the handover.

Hong Kong’s own democracy demonstrations, the 79-day Occupy protests in 2014, ended without concessions from Beijing to allow free elections of the city’s chief executive. Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has further restricted dissent on the mainland, and Hong Kong people fear that Beijing’s campaign is spreading to the city.

Democracy, Future

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for them to take this path,” of rejecting the legacy of Tiananmen, Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the Beijing protests, who works as an academic and democracy activist in exile, said in Tokyo. “Because if there’s no democracy in China, there’s no future in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a lot of connection with China. You can’t ignore this reality that Beijing can do anything to influence Hong Kong.”

The 25th anniversary of Tiananmen in 2014 saw one of the biggest turnouts for the vigil in recent years. Organizers estimated 180,000 people attended, while police put the figure at about half that amount. In the run-up to this year’s anniversary, only about 1,500 people joined an annual march on May 28 to protest the crackdown, the lowest in almost a decade, the South China Morning Post reported.

Tiananmen Survivor

In Taiwan yesterday, lawmakers for the first time marked the event in the legislature and were joined by Wu’er Kaixi, a survivor of Tiananmen who was once China’s second most-wanted fugitive after the crackdown. On Saturday, hundreds of people including lawmakers and Wu’er attended a vigil in Taipei’s Liberty Square, organizer Chou Ching-chan, president of Taiwan Students’ Association for China Democratization, said. Participants asked China government to investigate those responsible for the massacre and implement democracy.

Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, said in a Facebook post that the lives of people in China have improved with economic growth, but that China would earn more respect if it granted its people more rights.

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“Only its ruling party can heal the wounds of Chinese people in the past,” she wrote. Tsai said that she hoped “both sides will share same view about democracy and human rights some day in the future.”

Wu’er said it’s unfortunate that Tsai in her comments declined to refer to Tienanmen events as a massacre, and he urged China to release 2010 Nobel peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, an adviser to the student movement then. Wu’er, wearing a T-shirt with printing of “Free LXB”, called Liu his mentor.

In Hong Kong, resentment toward China has grown since the Tiananmen crackdown, eroding the feeling of solidarity that was pervasive at the time of the Beijing demonstrations. Wealthy Chinese shell out millions for Hong Kong apartments, inflating real estate prices, while the local economy has grown dependent on mainland tourists who drive up the cost of retail goods. Hong Kong consistently ranks among the five most expensive cities in the world.

That growing inequality and the failure of Occupy helped fuel the so-called localist movement that seeks to divorce demands for more freedom for Hong Kong from efforts to reform China. Some of the new localist groups are shifting from protest to politics and plan to field candidates for legislative elections in September. Rather than promote solidarity with the mainland, many of the localist groups have led protests against Chinese coming to Hong Kong, saying they are driving up prices for local residents.

At the time of the Tiananmen protests, sentiment among young people was very different. Students from the city joined cohorts in Beijing to man barricades. After troops put down the protests -- with estimates of the death toll ranging from hundreds to as many as 2,600 demonstrators -- Hong Kong rights activists helped smuggle hundreds of fugitive protesters out of China.

On Saturday, Tiananmen Square appeared normal, with crowds of tour groups,
families and couples looking relaxed as they milled about the vast plaza,
posing for photos, laughing and chatting. Visitors had to pass through cursory
security checks that have been a regular fixture on the square in recent years, with
no obvious sign of a heightened police presence beyond the regular guard posts
and occasional plain-clothes officers.

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