Thousands gathered at a candlelit vigil in Hong Kong Sunday night to mark 28 years since China’s bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown but the annual event is struggling for support among younger generations.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil to see a major commemoration of the military’s brutal crushing of pro-democracy protests in central Beijing in 1989.
But in the past two years, student unions have boycotted the longstanding vigil in Victoria Park as they say its message is increasingly irrelevant.
Organised by an umbrella group of veteran democracy activists, the vigil demands justice for the victims of the crackdown and also pushes for the democratisation of China.
Some young activists in Hong Kong say they want to prioritise the democratic future of the city itself and not China as a whole, as anti-Beijing sentiment grows.
Younger generations tend to see themselves as distant from mainland China, with some calling for more autonomy or even independence for Hong Kong after mass rallies for political reform in 2014 failed to win concessions.
Mak Kwan-wai, vice president of Hong Kong Baptist University’s student union, told AFP that building a democratic system in China was not Hong Kongers’ responsibility.
“What Hong Kongers should do is protect themselves,” Mak added.
Baptist is among several universities whose student unions did not attend the vigil.
However, democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who led the 2014 pro-democracy rallies, said people should not forget the victims of June 4 as he arrived at the park for the vigil.
“I believe we all share the same goal, which is to demand that the central government take responsibility for the massacre,” said 20-year-old Wong.
He added it was particularly important to support the vigil and its call for justice as the city approaches the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain to China on July 1, 1997.
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) June 4, 2017
China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to visit as part of the celebrations.
Mainland human rights activist, Wang Yan, 52, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past seven years and attended the vigil, warned against complacency over Tiananmen.
“We have to keep persisting. If we give up, are we just going to let it go if people get killed in the future?” she told AFP.
Numbers were expected to be lower than previous years and the official count is yet to be released.
But the park’s six football pitches were full with crowds holding candles and phone torches aloft as they chanted and sang.
A big screen played footage of the Tiananmen crackdown and interviews with some of the mothers of the victims, while activists delivered tributes to those who died.
Wreaths of lilies commemorated the dead and a flaming “democracy torch” was carried by some activists to the front of the park.
On Chinese microblogging website Weibo, foreign account holders found themselves unable to publish any photos or video.
— Tom Grundy (@tomgrundy) June 4, 2017
The Twitter-like site said the block, lasting from May 3 to May 5, was to “upgrade the system”.
A small gathering of pro-Beijing supporters also rallied nearby.
Their banners accused protesters at the June 4 commemoration and in 2014 of “using students as chess pieces” and denounced both as “despicable”.
Scuffles broke out briefly among rival protesters before police separated them.
In downtown Taipei around 50 protesters gathered in commemoration of the 1989 crackdown and called for the release of detained activists, including Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh who has been detained in China on subversion charges.
Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen urged China to release Lee in a message on her Facebook page.
She also asked Beijing to acknowledge June 4 and work towards democracy, offering Taiwan’s help to do so.
The island is a self-ruling democracy but China still sees it as part of its territory to be reunified.
“On the road to democracy, some people will arrive early, others later, but eventually everyone will get there,” Tsai said.