Hongkongers gather to remember, resist at annual Tiananmen massacre vigil (PHOTOS)

Thousands gather for a candlelight vigil marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park last night. Photo by Vicky Wong.
Thousands gather for a candlelight vigil marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park last night. Photo by Vicky Wong.

Tens of thousands of people converged on Hong Kong’s Victoria Park last night to mark the 30th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre in a vigil that many attendees saw as equal parts remembrance and resistance amid fears over the semi-autonomous city’s future.

As the only place in China where such commemorations can be held thanks to its colonial legacy and the “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong has hosted the vigil every year since 1989, when the central Chinese government unleashed the People’s Liberation Army on students and activists occupying Tiananmen Square to call for greater freedoms, killing hundreds.

Throngs of people poured into the park yesterday evening, funneled past a veritable clearinghouse of pro-democracy causes that had set up booths with loudspeakers and donation boxes to capitalize on the turnout.

A speaker from the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihoods addresses vigil attendees from a platform as they file into Victoria Park. Photo by Stuart White.
A speaker from the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihoods addresses vigil attendees from a platform as they file into Victoria Park. Photo by Stuart White.

While the Tiananmen massacre has been a cause celebre in Hong Kong ever since, this year’s vigil comes amid a series of local developments — chief among them the introduction of an almost-universally reviled bill establishing extradition protocol with the mainland — that many Hongkongers have come see as a threat to the unique freedoms it has enjoyed since its return to China by Britain in 1997.

Seemingly speaking for many at yesterday’s event, singer Anthony Wong characterized Beijing as the “monster that massacred people at Tiananmen 30 years ago.”

A group of veteran pro-democracy activists hold candles onstage during a vigil at Victoria Park last night. Photo via AFP.
A group of veteran pro-democracy activists hold candles onstage during a vigil at Victoria Park last night. Photo via AFP.

“We fear that this monster will run down to [Hong Kong], and we fear that this monster will… destroy our next generation,” he told the crowd.

Indeed, for many attendees, it was worries over the seeming erosion of Hong Kong’s special status, just as much as a desire to honor the memory of those killed at Tiananmen, that drew them to the park last night. Those widespread concerns, echoed by human rights groups in recent months, were believed to have fueled turnout.

A vigil-goer reads a leaflet featuring a call to join an upcoming rally against a controversial extradition bill. Photo by Samantha Mei Topp.
A vigil-goer reads a leaflet featuring a call to join an upcoming rally against a controversial extradition bill. Photo by Samantha Mei Topp.

Organizers estimated the crowd, which filled six soccer pitches and spilled over onto an adjacent lawn, to be roughly 180,000 strong — a joint record with 2014, the year of the city’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests, and well above last year’s turnout of 115,000. Police, however, as is customary, put the turnout far lower, at 37,000 people.

Even for long-time vigil-goers, the current unease pervading local Hong Kong politics loomed large.

Vigil attendees walk past a stall featuring a shrine to the dead, and signs calling Hong Kong's past and current leaders 'heartless.' Photo by Stuart White.
Vigil attendees walk past a stall featuring a shrine to the dead, and signs calling Hong Kong’s past and current leaders “heartless.” Photo by Stuart White.

A 66-year-old pensioner, surnamed Lo, told Coconuts HK that she and her husband have been attending the annual vigil regularly since 1989.

“We used to come here every year. We skipped the last few years, but we had to come tonight because it’s the 30th anniversary, and also because things have started to get worse in Hong Kong.”

Lo singled out the extradition bill — which has been criticised by students, businesspeople, activists, clergy, lawyers and foreign governments — as particularly troubling, and said she would be attending a rally this Sunday opposing it.

A replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue, which was erected in the middle of Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy protests of 1989. Photo by Vicky Wong.
A replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue, which was erected in the middle of Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy protests of 1989. Photo by Vicky Wong.

Though the vigil has been a fixture of Hong Kong for decades, recent surveys have indicated that it has become less of a draw for young people as engagement in localist politics has surged in the years since the Umbrella Movement, a trend that Lo lamented last night, even as she noted some young faces in the crowd.

“It’s a huge shame that a some of young people don’t want not to come to this event,” she said. “It’s important for lots of people to come here and show a united front.”

People hold candles at the vigil at Victoria Park last night. Photo via AFP.
People hold candles at the vigil at Victoria Park last night. Photo via AFP.

However, one 28-year-old attendee, who asked to be identified only by his first time, William, challenged the notion that young people were no longer interested in the vigil.

“I’m here with my friend!” he exclaimed when asked about the trend, gesturing towards his companion.

William told Coconuts he had been attending the vigil for the past five years, and saw it as a call for the Chinese government to acknowledge the mistake it made at Tiananmen and embrace democracy — “democracy for all Chinese people,” he added.

Onlookers take photos of the vigil in Victoria Park last night from a nearby footbridge. Photo by Stuart White.
Onlookers take photos of the vigil in Victoria Park last night from a nearby footbridge. Photo by Stuart White.

Indeed, that China move towards democracy is one of the explicit demands of the event’s organizers, even as many Hongkongers increasingly see themselves as alienated from the mainland.

William said he still held out hope for the possibility of a democratic China in his lifetime, but said the vigil was also a “pathway for Hong Kong to express that it is eager [to keep] its rights.”

A man holds a poster, showing Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, against the proposed extradition law at last night's vigil. Photo via AFP.
A man holds a poster, showing Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, against the proposed extradition law at last night’s vigil. Photo via AFP.

Sixteen-year-old Larry Wong — who was attending the vigil for the first time, in part, due to fears over the extradition bill — said he saw a connection between localist concerns and the need to remember the killings at Tiananmen.

“I think it’s quite a crucial time for both the mainland and Hong Kong,” he told Coconuts. “I think the human rights situation is deteriorating faster and faster. Even though it doesn’t change much to come here, it’s kind of a civic duty.”

Attendees hold candles at last night's vigil in Victoria Park. Photo via Vicky Wong.
Attendees hold candles at last night’s vigil in Victoria Park. Photo via Vicky Wong.

“It’s complicated for us Hong Kong teenagers, because we didn’t seen [the events at Tiananmen] on TV,” he continued. “We have a stronger link on the Hong Kong side. But what’s going on on the Hong Kong side is kind of an extension of 1989, because we saw the handover to a democratic China as a lie.”

Before the introduction of the extradition bill, Wong “thought [the vigil] didn’t matter,” he said.

“But now, there’s a sense that even if [attending such events] doesn’t work, it’s what we should do.”

Additional reporting by AFP.

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