Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

Tiananmen Vigil in Hong Kong Draws Smallest Crowd Since 2008

  • Organizers put attendance at 110,000 as students shun ceremony
  • Minute of silence held for victims of 1989 China crackdown

Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil to commemorate China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown attracted the smallest crowd in nine years as local student leaders shunned the gathering.

Organizers put attendance at Sunday’s event -- in honor of hundreds killed when Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing -- at about 110,000, the fewest since 2008. The police put the figure at 18,000 at the height of the event. In the run-up to the vigil, only about 1,000 people joined an annual march May 28 to protest the crackdown, the fewest in nine years and the second-smallest number since the marches started.

Demonstrators attend a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong June 4.

Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

“There are some voices from Hong Kong citizens that the vigil has no impact now,” said Samson Liu, a 50-year-old Hong Kong citizen who had participated in a pro-democracy parade in Beijing 28 years ago. “They don’t represent me. There is something we should stick to it, otherwise we will regret someday.”

Cracks in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp emerged as the 79-day so-called Occupy protests in 2014 ended without concessions from Beijing to allow free elections of the city’s chief executive. That also fueled a so-called localist movement, which seeks to divorce demands for more freedom for Hong Kong from efforts to reform China. Student unions of all 10 universities in Hong Kong boycotted the vigil this year, citing disagreement with the organizer’s mandate to bring democracy to China.

“We should focus on fighting for democracy in Hong Kong under Chinese rule,” Lala Lai, 24, student union president of the Education University of Hong Kong, said before the vigil. “As a local-born who didn’t witness Tiananmen Square, I wonder why we have to change China.”

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

Still, pro-democracy protesters filled an area equivalent to six soccer fields at Victoria Park with thousands of candles. They stood in silence for a minute to commemorate those killed in the crackdown. They chanted slogans such as “justice to June 4th; end one-party rule.”

They surrounded the Goddess of Democracy Statue in the center of the park next to a pedestal engraved with the phrase.

The vigil came less than a month before Hong Kong marks the 20th anniversary of its return to the Chinese rule. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the city to oversee the celebrations and the inauguration of the new government. Hong Kong was under British rule until July 1, 1997.

“It is by no means easy to sustain a movement in such a scale and for such a long period of time,” said Albert Ho, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance for Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the vigil organizer. “It’s still over 100,000. I think it’s amazing.”

Beijing remained quiet during the weekend, with increased security on subways and streets. Bluegogo, a domestic bike-sharing app, on Saturday switched the bike icons on its map to blue ribbons. Social media posts also showed the app’s maps with tank icons instead of bikes moving down the Avenue of Eternal Peace toward Tiananmen Square. Bluegogo didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment.

In democratically ruled Taiwan, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, a students’ group that promotes popular rule on the mainland, and other groups held a vigil in the rain in Taipei.

“Persistence is the only thing we have,” Wang Dan, a student leader during the Beijing protests who now an n academic and activist in exile, told the Taipei gathering. “This is our weapon, should we use it well, that leads to a success.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, head of the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, urged Beijing in a Twitter post to treat the Tiananmen Square incident with an open heart.

“We are still holding on to our shared hope: that in our lifetime, June 4th will be officially recognized for what it was,” said the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that represents the parents of the victims of the 1989 crackdown. “The reputation of the innocent victims killed will be rehabilitated, and justice and peace will be restored in this great land of China, so that we can bring solace to our deceased loved ones!”

— With assistance by David Ramli, Ken Wills, and Jake Ulick

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