June 4 vigil brings back fears as Hong Kong marks 20 years of Chinese rule

HONG KONG — As hundreds of thousands of Chinese students took to Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, Lee Cheuk-yan felt exhilarated.

It was May 1989, and he was one of a handful of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong, then a UK colony still eight years away from Chinese rule.

“Young people in China were demanding democracy,” he said this week. “We felt that if they made it, it meant Hong Kong would not have to live under an authoritarian regime.”

When the tanks rolled in, they crushed the hopes of the student movement and its supporters in Hong Kong.

But the June 4 massacre — in which hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were killed — had an indelible effect on Hong Kong. “In the past we were something of an economic city, but after 1989 we became a political city,” Lee said.

Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers attended an annual candlelight vigil to mark the 28th anniversary of the massacre Sunday, in what has become a traditional show of defiance to China and is the only public commemoration of the crackdown on Chinese soil.

Tens of thousands of people attend an annual candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park, Sunday, June 4, 2017.

Right to protest under threat?

The organizers of vigil, which sees a huge park turn into a field of flickering candles, have called on people to come out in a show of defiance to Beijing as the central government plans a huge celebration on July 1 to mark 20 years since Hong Kong’s sovereignty passed from the UK to China.

“The Chinese regime is trying to squeeze out the space that we have in Hong Kong and is a threat to our freedom and democracy,” said Lee, now general secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance, which runs the annual event.

Many Hong Kong democrats fear Beijing is tightening its grip over the city, eroding its autonomy and increasingly intervening in Hong Kong politics.

In March, Carrie Lam was selected by a Beijing-dominated committee to be the city’s next leader over John Tsang, who consistently led in public opinion polls.

A day after Lam was selected, multiple leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement were charged with public order offenses, more than 27 months after the pro-democracy protests ended, leading some to accuse the government of attempting to “clean house” ahead of Lam’s July 1 swearing-in ceremony.

An annual pro-democracy rally scheduled for the handover anniversary was denied use of its usual staging ground in Victoria Park, in the heart of the city and where the vigil takes place.

The space has instead been promised to a pro-Beijing organization, the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, that will hold a handover commemoration event in the park, local media reported.

The march, which usually attracts tens of thousands, is expected to still go ahead but democracy activists say that it’s an attempt to crush dissent ahead of a potential visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, his first to Hong Kong as Chinese leader.

Lee said he was worried in the future even the Tiananmen vigil “might be seen as a national security problem.”

Ousted General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, dies at age 73 on April 15, 1989. The next day, thousands of students gather at Tiananmen Square to mourn him -- Hu had become a symbol of reform for the student movement. A week later thousands more marched to Tiananmen Square -- the start of an occupation that would end in a tragic showdown.

‘Reminder to the world’

In recent years controversies have erupted over how to properly mark the day, with some Hong Kongers, particularly the younger generation, feeling the Alliance and other groups focus too much on political reform in China, instead of highlighting problems at home.

Hong Kongers commemorate victims of the Chinese government's brutal military crackdown nearly three decades ago on protesters in 1989 Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Though last year competing events did not have much effect on turnout — more than 125,000 took part in the Victoria Park vigil and thousands more participated in alternative commemorations — the Alliance has taken measures to attract young people back to the rally.

This year, organizers have introduced eco-friendly candles and invited local high school boy band Boyz’ Reborn to represent young people during the ceremony.

Wu’er Kaixi, one of the organizers of the original Tiananmen protests, said this year’s memorial was a “reminder to the world the situation in Hong Kong 20 years after handover is actually getting worse.”

“It’s incredibly important for Hong Kong people to continue to commemorate (June 4),” he said from Taiwan, where he lives in exile. “It gives people not just a sense of power, but also hope.”