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Where the Flame Still Burns

The Economist – DESPITE choking heat, a record number of more than 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong tonight, according to organisers, for the annual candlelit vigil to remember people killed when the Chinese armed forces suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Participants filled six football pitches and spilled onto the streets surrounding Victoria Park to urge China to respect human rights and overturn its denunciation of the pro-democracy movement as a “counter-revolutionary event”.

Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is the only place on Chinese soil where large public commemorations of the Tiananmen massacre take place; elsewhere memorials of the June 4th crackdown remain strictly forbidden.

The mood seemed more solemn than in recent years. A sea of people dressed in the traditional mourning colours of white and black held small white candles. The entire crowd bowed as a ceremonial funeral procession marched toward a large gravestone temporarily erected in the middle of the park. Then a torch was lit and organisers led the crowd in the shouting of slogans, including: “Vindicate June 4th, fight to the end.”

“When the rest of China is silenced, Hong Kong can light a candle in protest against the Communist Party,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which has organised the vigil since 1990.

Some participants worry that Hong Kong is losing interest in seeking redress. The proportion of respondents who agreed with the statement “The Beijing students did the right thing” fell to 48% this year from 54% a year ago, according to a poll by Hong Kong University. Only 56% of residents want the central government to overturn its official stance that a counterrevolutionary rebellion had threatened the nation, which is seven percentage points fewer than a year ago.

Older participants in the crowd expressed anxiety that the younger generation who had not experienced the 1989 events first hand would not care about preserving its memory. But in the University of Hong Kong poll, support for Tiananmen activists was strongest among those under 30. Dennis Yip, a member of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said his classmates are “taking up the torch of what Beijing students started 25 years ago”.

Outside Victoria Park, a pro-establishment group staged a counter-demonstration in support of the 1989 crackdown. The group, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, showed a video questioning the student movement and urging viewers to forget about the past. The group refused to talk to journalists, and was protected by a dozen police officers and metal barricades after arrests were made earlier in the evening. It was unclear who was arrested.

Mak Yin-ting, who covered the 1989 protests in Beijing for the Hong Kong Daily News, said that her worries 25 years ago have now been realised. She said press freedom has taken a battering, citing a rash of attacks on journalists and an increase in pressure on news organisations from Beijing. A report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association said Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong has called newspaper editors to complain about their political coverage. In April the Chinese government summoned Hong Kong media executives to Beijing to issue them a directive to play an “active, positive role” in voicing opposition to the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.

The Occupy Central movement is threatening to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the local government does not offer an electoral reform proposal in time for elections in 2017, when Beijing has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s leader through universal suffrage. The Chinese government insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process.

The vigil tonight ended with the singing of a Cantonese version of “Do You Hear The People Sing”, a popular protest song from the musical Les Misérables. As the crowd exited the park, protesters said they were already gearing up for another demonstrationin two days to mark the second anniversary of the death of Li Wangyang, a Tiananmen dissident and labour-rights activist. Li had spent 21 years in prison for his role in the pro-democracy protests and was found hanged in his hospital room in Hunan.

This time, protesters will have a more direct target: the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. It looks as if the small city will continue to be a thorn in the side of the motherland.

Photo credit: AP
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