Tens of thousands of people rallied in Hong Kong late Monday for a candlelight vigil commemorating the victims of a bloody military crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 29 years ago.
Hong Kong played a role in facilitating the escape of some student leaders fleeing Beijing following the crackdown and remains the only place on Chinese soil allowed to hold large-scale commemorations of the victims every year since 1989.
“No matter how impossible it seems, we must persevere, in hope that China will one day have democracy,” said a 61-year-old retiree who only gave his surname Yau.
“Hong Kong somehow is the only place in China where we can openly mourn the victims of June 4,” he said.
On the night of June 3, 1989, soldiers opened fire on protesters who had occupied the Tiananmen Square for weeks, acting on Chinese leaders’ order to disperse the crowd. The crackdown lasted through the night and left hundreds, if not thousands, dead, though no official count has ever been released.
The Chinese government has denied any wrongdoing and called the demonstration first a “counterrevolutionary riot,” then a “political turmoil” that has already settled and needs no more attention.
“June 4 was a turning point in China’s history that should be remembered,” said 40-year-old schoolteacher Maggie. “It was a pity that China lost a chance to become a democracy. It grew into a strong economy, but its political development stalled and corruption went out of control.”
“We are here to condemn China’s Communist Party for slaughtering its people,” sociology professor and a leader of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement Chan Kin-man said.
“We hope the candles lit can offer condolence to parents of students who lost their lives in fighting for a democratic China,” he said.
Turnout to the monumental event, which calls for a democratic China and a redress of the massacre, has been falling in recent years from the record 180,000 in 2014 as announced by the organizer, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
While anti-China sentiment has been growing, especially among the young people, student unions of all eight Hong Kong universities shunned the memorial for the second consecutive year.
The alliance also faces a new jab by pro-Beijing forces this year over its longtime advocacy of “ending one-party rule” in China, with some equating that with subversion.
“The wound in history has not yet healed, justice not yet served,” alliance chairman Albert Ho said in the eulogy. “A government that doesn’t learn from history is hopeless, most importantly, brutal authorities must fall.”
Ho said the vigil’s estimated turnout of 115,000 is encouraging and he hopes for an even number on next year’s 30th anniversary, “showing a common determination of the people fighting for democracy in China.”
Police put the number of people at a mere 17,000.