Hong Kong remembers Tiananmen, fearful for its own future

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Crowds began arriving for a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on Tuesday evening marking 30 years since China's bloody Tiananmen crackdown, a gathering tinged with symbolism as the city struggles to preserve its own cherished freedoms.

The eye-catching spectacle -- in which tens of thousands of Hong Kongers clutch candles, sing songs and listen to emotional speeches -- is the only place in China were mass commemorations can be safely held.

The semi-autonomous financial hub has hosted an annual vigil every year since tanks and soldiers smashed into protesters near Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 -- an illustration of the city's unusual freedoms and vibrant political scene.

Organised by a group of veteran democracy activists, the vigil demands justice for victims and for China to embrace democracy.

But in more recent years the mass gatherings have taken on an increasingly contemporary significance as angst builds over Hong Kong's future.

Organisers expect a big turnout for Tuesday night's vigil, fuelled by both the milestone of the 30th anniversary itself and a renewed furore over defending the city from an increasingly assertive Beijing.

This year's vigil comes at a time of huge controversy over plans by the city's pro-Beijing government to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland for the first time.

The proposed law has sparked a backlash from figures in the legal and business communities as well as the largest demonstrations Hong Kong has seen since 2014, a year when pro-democracy protesters took over key intersections of the city for more than two months.

Tuesday's vigil also comes just weeks after key leaders of those protests were jailed.

"The candlelight of Victoria Park is a symbol showing Hong Kong's people cannot be bullied ... and proof that the Chinese Communist Party will never make Hong Kong obey," the Hong Kong Alliance, which organises the vigil, said in a statement.

- 50 year deal -

Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech and assembly rights unseen on the Chinese mainland under a 50-year handover agreement between former colonial power Britain and China.

But many fear those liberties are being eroded and questioned Beijing's commitment to that deal.

In recent years protest leaders have been jailed and banned from politics while the disappearance into Chinese custody of a group of Beijing-critical booksellers rattled nerves.

Tiananmen survivors have previously appeared at past vigils but in recent years some have found themselves turned away by local authorities.

On Sunday, former protest leader Feng Congde was barred from entering the city on arrival at the airport and deported, organisers said.

Attendance at the vigil has remained above 100,000 for the last decade but the numbers have slipped the last four years after the 2014 democracy protests failed to win any concessions from Beijing.

Many younger Hong Kongers have since embraced "localism", which focuses on preserving local Cantonese culture and freedoms and regards mainland China as a hostile entity subsuming their city.

The proportion of those attending the vigil aged under 30 dropped from 55 percent to 31 percent between 2010 and 2018 according to surveys while student unions have boycotted the vigil the last five years.

Annual polling from the University of Hong Kong has shown consistent replies with a majority saying the Tiananmen students were right to protest and that China was wrong to suppress them.

One figure has changed markedly.

In the last five years the number of respondents saying China's human rights situation is now worse than 1989 has more than doubled from just 15 percent to 33 percent in the latest poll released Monday.