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Candles in the night: Report on 4 June vigil in Hong Kong commemorating Tiananmen Square massacre

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Crowd at Hong Kong vigil

On 4 June every year, Hong Kong remembers the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 with a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. This year was the 25th anniversary and the turnout was huge, with organisers putting the numbers at more than 180,000, and even the police estimate was 99,500 (clearly they couldn’t breach the psychologically resonant 100,000), in a city of 7 million. It certainly seemed the largest since I began going three years ago after moving to Hong Kong. As in previous years, the crowd encompassed all age groups, but was disproportionately young. There was a real feeling of solidarity, which extended to us, as people helped each other to light and relight the candles against the evening breeze. Any breeze was welcome, as the temperature was still close to 30 degrees at 8pm and incredibly humid.  An elderly man gave us a big thumbs up. It was a very emotional event, and it was impossible not to be moved as everyone in the crowd held up their candles at the same time when the names of those known to have been killed were read out. Some of the exiled former leaders of the movement spoke on video, and a prominent civil rights lawyer, Teng Biao, from the mainland addressed the crowd, although he had been warned a week ago in a phone call that he would face ‘serious consequences’ if he attended the vigil. While many people on the mainland have been detained in recent weeks, showing the fear still felt by the Chinese Communist Party at the mere memory of 1989, even in Hong Kong the websites of the vigil organisers have been offline due to sustained denial of service attacks, undoubtedly directed by Beijing. A Taiwanese academic who came to Hong Kong to attend a conference on Tiananmen was also denied entry to the city. Many people from the mainland do attend the vigil, and this year it was a larger number than ever, judging by the donations on the night made in Yuan rather than Hong Kong dollars – up 60% on last year, according to the organisers.

It is the largest event commemorating Tiananmen in the world, and this is for two interconnected reasons:  firstly, Hongkongers are acutely aware that their city is the only place in China (apart from Macau, where at least until this year, the population has been much more quiescent) where this is possible and that places an obligation on them to come out and show that they have not forgotten either the aspirations or the crushing of the movement. Secondly, there is a growing sense in Hong Kong that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city, in subtle and not so subtle ways, and many Hongkongers – at least those that do not own and rule the place, the property developers and businessmen only too happy to cuddle up to Beijing – feel that it is crucial to show that they don’t intend to let it happen by default. 

People arriving at Hong Kong vigil

A number of events have tended to reinforce the sense of increased threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms. In 2012 the government in Hong Kong attempted to insert ‘national education’ into Hong Kong’s school curriculum. This would have been via a fairly nakedly one-sided account of recent Chinese history. It provoked massive demonstrations, led by a new school student organisation called Scholarism, which was out in force on the vigil as well. The government backed off. Then there is the perceived threat to freedom of the press; early this year, the editor of a Chinese-language paper critical of Beijing was suddenly removed from his post and a few weeks later, he was attacked in the street by men carrying choppers and very nearly killed. Although there have been arrests, the hired attackers have not revealed who paid them. A radio talk show host who regularly criticises the government was also sacked at around the same time and there was also a violent physical attack on people who were trying to launch a new paper. Polls of journalists show that they feel that both censorship and the pressure to censor themselves are growing.

Finally, there is a deadline of 2017 to bring in universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive (the legislature is mainly directly elected but with a number of fixes which guarantee the pan-democrats, parties broadly opposed to Beijing, cannot get a majority). Beijing favours a system for the Chief Executive election where everyone can vote but the candidates can only be put forward by a narrow nominating committee. A movement called Occupy Central has been formed which has pledged mass civil disobedience – taking the form of people blocking the roads in the Central Business District – if the reforms do not guarantee a genuine choice of candidates. This is bringing forth various dark threats and warnings. Hongkongers are very aware that the People’s Liberation Army is stationed in Hong Kong in the old British barracks, and a pro-Beijing lawmaker asked the Chief Executive recently if he would ask for its help to deal with the Occupy movement if the police were unable to keep order. Needless to say, the question was not answered directly, but it is not too surprising that people in Hong Kong feel the need to come out and remember 4 June 1989.

As we were leaving the park we stopped at a stall run by Socialist Action (CWI affiliate here http://chinaworker.info/en/) where a young man told us that while lighting candles was good, it was not enough. He was perhaps a bit surprised at how readily we agreed.

You can watch a complete video (long, in Cantonese) of the event here: