In Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but remains a free-wheeling, capitalist hub, demonstrators holding candles and clad mainly in black gathered in a downtown park on Wednesday (June 4) and called on Beijing to atone for the killings during a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters 25 years ago in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
A large number of mainland Chinese also flocked to commemorate the crackdown in the former British territory, where a vigil has been held every year since the massacre. Organisers said some 180,000 people took part on Wednesday evening.
“This is my first time participating in this sort of large-scale political event. I hope one day in China, citizens will truly have the freedom to demonstrate,” dissident and scholar Teng Biao said.
China has never released a death toll for the crackdown after troops shot their way into central Beijing, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.
Several governments including the United States urged China to account for what happened on June 4, 1989, comments that riled China, which has said the protest movement was “counter-revolutionary”.
Amnesty International said that the crackdown on dissent in mainland China has been harsher than ever leading up to the anniversary.
“Well, this is of course the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, and what we’ve seen this year is an intensification of the crackdown against all sorts of people in civil society. Human rights lawyers, NGO workers, Buddhist monks even, artists. And it’s really wide in scope. It’s not just confined to Beijing. It’s nationwide. And it’s not just house arrests a few days before. But a lot of people are being criminally detained as well. Which is a very worrying sign compared to previous years,” William Nee, Amnesty International’s China Researcher, said.
Public discussion of Tiananmen is forbidden in China and online references to it are heavily censored, leaving many of the country’s youth ignorant of the incident.
But Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, maintains a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Canadian émigré, Cindy Ng, said she was living in Hong Kong at the time of the 1989 crackdown.
“It was so sad at the time. But I find China has so many young people, to support, to fight for the democracy,” she said.
Also in attendance for the first time was 16-year-old schoolgirl, Chan Boulam, who said her mother had urged her to come to the protest.
Chan said although she had learned about it in school as a youngster, recently, she had heard more about the events from the news.
“Actually, I also learned about this on the news, bit by bit telling us what kind of event this was. It’s something you can’t not know about, for a Hong Kong resident,” Chan said.
But for the first time since the annual vigil began, scuffles broke out between different political factions on both sides of the city’s iconic harbour, highlighting rising tensions between Hong Kong and China in a politically sensitive year with debate over constitutional reform looming.