Crowds gather for Hong Kong Tiananmen vigil

A protester in Hong Kong shouting before the start of a candlelight vigil to mark the 28th anniversary of China's bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4.
A protester in Hong Kong shouting before the start of a candlelight vigil to mark the 28th anniversary of China's bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (AFP) - Thousands were expected at a candlelit vigil in Hong Kong on Sunday (June 4) night to mark 28 years since China's bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown, but the annual event is struggling for support among younger generations.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil to see a major commemoration of the military's brutal crushing of pro-democracy protests in central Beijing in 1989.

But in the past two years, student unions have boycotted the longstanding vigil in Victoria Park as they say its message is increasingly irrelevant.

The vigil, organised by an umbrella group of veteran democracy activists, demands justice for the victims of the crackdown and also pushes for the democratisation of China.

Some young activists in Hong Kong say they want to prioritise the democratic future of the city itself and not China as a whole, as anti-Beijing sentiment grows.

Younger generations tend to see themselves as distant from mainland China, with some calling for more autonomy or even independence for Hong Kong after mass rallies for political reform in 2014 failed to win concessions.

Mr Mak Kwan-wai, vice-president of Hong Kong Baptist University's student union, told AFP that building a democratic system in China was not Hong Kongers' responsibility.

"What Hong Kongers should do is protect themselves," Mr Mak added.

Baptist is among several universities whose student unions have said they would not attend the vigil.

However, democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who led the 2014 pro-democracy rallies, said people should not forget the victims of June 4 as he arrived at the park for the vigil.

"Young people are increasingly adopting their own identity as Hong Kongers and are not satisfied with the commemoration under the traditional banner of patriotism," said Mr Wong, 20.

"But I believe we all share the same goal, which is to demand that the central government take responsibility for the massacre."

He added it was particularly important to support the vigil and its call for justice as the city approaches the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain to China on July 1, 1997.

China's President Xi Jinping is expected to visit as part of the celebrations.

One mainland human rights activist, Mr Wang Yan, 52, was among the crowds arriving in Victoria Park.

Mr Wang, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past seven years, warned against complacency over the Tiananmen crackdown.

"We have to keep persisting. If we give up, are we just going to let it go if people get killed in the future?" he told AFP.

A small gathering of pro-Beijing supporters also rallied near the park.

Their banners accused protesters at the June 4 commemoration and in 2014 of "using students as chess pieces" and denounced both as "despicable".

Scuffles broke out briefly among rival protesters before police separated them.

The main vigil will start at 8.00 pm when the crowds will light candles in remembrance.