Hong Kong marks Tiananmen as China blocks remembrance

HONG KONG, China, (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers braved thunder and a torrential downpour to attend a candlelight vigil on Tuesday marking the 24th anniversary of China's bloody Tiananmen crackdown, as Beijing blocked commemoration attempts.

A massive turnout filled the former British colony's Victoria Park in an annual act of remembrance for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people killed in the June 3-4 onslaught in Beijing in 1989.

In Beijing, police blocked the gate of a cemetery housing victims of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators as part of a sweeping annual effort to bar commemorations.

In a narrow street near Beijing's Forbidden City, security personnel patrolled outside the former house of Mr Zhao Ziyang, the former communist party secretary who was purged and held under house arrest for perceived sympathy with the protesters.

Mainland authorities also blocked online searches for a wide range of keywords ranging from "Tiananmen" to "candle" on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

Hong Kong and Macau, which reverted to Beijing's rule in the late 1990s but have semi-autonomous status, are the only places in China where the brutal military intervention is openly marked.

The event has largely been expunged from official Chinese history, but Victoria Park was transformed on Tuesday into a sea of demonstrators holding candles.

"Vindicate June Fourth!" protesters shouted. "We will never forget".

"The candlelight vigil tonight has an additional meaning of not just condemning the massacre 24 years ago but also condemning the suppression today (in mainland China)," Mr Lee Cheuk Yan, chairman of protest organisers the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, told AFP.

Mr Billy Li, a 28-year-old recent university graduate, said he was attending because the Tiananmen crackdown "has not been vindicated, because the truth has not been told".

Organisers had said they expect 150,000 people to attend the event including an increasing number of mainland Chinese. No estimate of the crowd size was immediately available.

"I hope the next generation will not have to suffer the red terror," 42-year-old Pan Xidian from the southern Chinese city of Xiamen told AFP.

"We have not given up," the construction worker said, adding that he was very thankful for Hong Kongers' support.

Mr Pan had travelled to Hong Kong for the first time to commemorate the crackdown that ended weeks of nationwide democracy protests.

Beijing has never provided an official final toll for the military repression, which was condemned worldwide. Independent observers tallied more than 1,000 dead in Beijing, without including victims elsewhere.

"I think all of us, even the new generation in Hong Kong, would have the same feeling that it is a tragedy and also an offence by the government to shoot people like that," said Mr Richard Choi, vice-chairman of the organising group.

"The problem is still not resolved, that's why Hong Kong people have the same feelings and the same demands as they did 24 years ago."

The Chinese Communist Party branded the Tiananmen protests a "counter-revolutionary rebellion", and each year Beijing pushes to prevent commemorations.

But pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong have marked the event every year.

Organisers said 180,000 people took part last year while police put the figure at 85,000.

The protest also draws on discontent with Hong Kong under its Beijing-backed government, including corruption scandals, sky-high housing prices and a growing wealth gap, as well as slow progress towards democracy.

The city's leader is chosen by a pro-Beijing elite and the legislature is only partially elected.

China has promised to let Hong Kong people elect their leader by 2017 and to vote for all legislators in 2020, but no details have been given.

A survey of a thousand people conducted by Hong Kong University last month found 68 per cent thought the Chinese government acted wrongly in 1989, and the same number believed the city should spur the development of democracy in China.