HONG KONG - The candlelight vigil held here on Thursday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident attracted a record turnout.
The massive crowd at Victoria Park, where the annual vigil has been held since 1990, was unprecedented whether one takes the organisers’ estimate of 150,000 or the police’s figure of 62,800. The attendance at last year’s vigil was estimated at 48,000 and 15,700 respectively.
Young people born after 1989 were among the crowd, clad mostly in black or white and cradling candles in remembrance of those who died.
“Twenty years have passed but Hong Kong still managed to get 150,000 people to attend,” legislator Szeto Wah, 78, told the crowd on Thursday night.
“This delivers a strong message to Beijing,” added Mr Szeto, founder of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organises the annual vigil.
In the mainland, there was no mention of the Hong Kong vigil yesterday.
In the run-up to the anniversary, the Chinese authorities stepped up security measures, especially around Tiananmen Square, and also intensified Internet censorship. Many websites were blocked.
Several factors accounted for the massive gathering in Hong Kong.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang came under fire last month after he told legislators that most people in Hong Kong appreciated the benefits resulting from China’s economic growth since the crackdown.
He said his view represented the opinion of ordinary Hong Kongers, which sparked more criticism because he was not elected by the people. He later apologised for his remarks, which he attributed to the wrong choice of words.
While Hong Kongers can see the economic strides that the mainland has made in the past 20 years, many say they cannot forget June 4.
The recent publication of the memoirs of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted for refusing to suppress the Tiananmen protesters, also jolted more memories.
Fourteen thousand copies of the Chinese-language version of the book were sold out in two hours after it went on sale.
Some older Hong Kongers are concerned that the post-1989 generation knows little about the Tiananmen protests, which are given only a brief mention in Hong Kong textbooks.
Some young student leaders have questioned the validity of media reports about the crackdown.
They said the Tiananmen student leaders were to blame for being uncompromising and pushing the limits to the point of no return. Others felt that the student leaders could have been manipulated by some foreign forces to topple the CCP.
Young people’s lack of knowledge of the events of June 4 was the reason many parents gave for turning up at the vigil with their children in tow.
One of them, physical education teacher Sandra Lee, brought her seven-year-old son.
“I want him to know the facts, what really happened 20 years ago,” she was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. Hundreds are believed to have been killed when Chinese troops were sent in to crack down on protesters on June 4, 1989.
The only former Chinese student leader from 1989 allowed to enter Hong Kong, Mr Xiong Yan, spoke about the city’s role in the anniversary.
“Hong Kong is a part of China and can influence China more than any country, more than any place,” Mr Xiong, who was one of 21 people placed on Beijing’s “most wanted list” in 1989, said. After 19 months in prison, he left China in 1992 for the United States, where he studied theology. He is now a chaplain in the US Army.
Professor Ding Zilin, who lost her son in 1989 and banded with other women like her to form the Beijing-based Tiananmen Mothers, has also praised the “Hong Kong spirit” for helping those in need and also for upholding justice and the truth.
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement and enjoys a high degree of freedom.
Apart from the annual vigil, protests over anything from food prices to treatment of maids are common and tolerated.
Because of its unique circumstance, some say Hong Kong is China’s conscience.