HONG KONG—Tens of thousands of people organizers say 150,000 turned out for a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on Saturday to remember those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and to demand the release of pro-democracy activists on the Chinese mainland.
It was a stunning display of hope for a democratic ideal, coming at a time when political suppression in China has never been greater — not since the Communist government used guns and tanks to crush the student-led Tiananmen protests in Beijing 22 years ago.
In Hong Kong, where police estimated the crowd at a more conservative 77,000, demonstrations are still allowed under the agreement that returned the former British colony to China in 1997.
But on the Chinese mainland, in a feat worthy of a George Orwell novel, government censors blocked all news of Saturday’s protest.
Nor was there any mention of the tragic events of June 4, 1989, in which hundreds and possibly more than 1,000 people died.
The Tiananmen massacre remains a taboo topic in mainland China, and Saturday was marked by a near-national amnesia, interrupted only by news that Li Na, China’s top female tennis player, had won the French Open.
But in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, it was Tiananmen, not tennis, that was on people’s minds.
“We want the Chinese government to admit that they acted improperly in suppressing the 1989 student movement,” said modern-day student leader Li Shing Hong, 21.
Li said he didn’t agree with Communist party supporters who argue that in suppressing the ’89 student movement, the government paved the path for today’s enviable Chinese economy.
“You can’t sacrifice lives for an improved economy: human life is more valuable than economics,” said Li. “Besides, there is no causal relationship between suppressing the June 4 movement and the successful development of China.”
Li was among tens of thousands of Hong Kong students who turned out for Saturday’s vigil — a clear signal, organizers said, that China’s democratic movement is being bolstered with new blood.
“We’re seeing a revival,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, who heads the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. “Young people are now able to identify with the students of 1989 and with their cause. Now we’ll be able to pass the torch in the pursuit of democracy for China.”
Lee said he was also encouraged by the number of mainland Chinese who were now attending the annual event, and even contributing money to the movement.
Indeed, there were reports Saturday of long lineups at the border crossing into Hong Kong from the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Lee said an increased number of mainlanders were now coming specifically to attend the vigil; others who happened to be in the city this weekend came out of curiosity, and mainlander students attending Hong Kong universities were also turning up, he said.
Lee’s memories of the massacre are still vivid. He was in Beijing at the time.
“That night was the darkest in modern Chinese history, and certainly the darkest for me personally,” he said. “We had been at the very peak of hope and then, suddenly, we descended into a bottomless pit of despair.”
In the months and weeks leading up to June 4, Chinese students and their supporters believed they were on the cusp of seizing the historic moment, and that “a new China” was about to dawn.
“Then came the crackdown and our hopes were crushed,” Lee said.
Like other Hong Kong democrats, he is deeply disturbed by the Chinese government’s new round of suppression on the mainland.
Lee wore a political button on his sports jacket bearing the face of jailed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the mocking question “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei.”
The Chinese government’s jailing of artists, writers, human rights lawyers and activists is a clear sign of deep anxiety, he said.
“All of this suppression shows that the regime is deeply worried about the merging of intellectuals, rights lawyers and human rights defenders with the people’s discontent. This has the capacity to elevate that discontent to the political level.
“They’re really worried,” he said. “They’re really afraid.”
The vigil not only paid homage to those who died in Tiananmen Square, but also raised consciousness about China’s current political issues.
Hong Kong political parties and non-governmental organizations, for example, were selling T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Ai, the artist who has become a well-known dissident, as well as that of Chinese writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year jail term for allegedly trying to subvert the state.
Student groups were handing out high-quality booklets highlighting the history of the 1980s student movement, including the fateful clash in Tiananmen Square.
And still others were distributing free bouquets of jasmine flowers, the new, potent symbol of the revolutions rocking North Africa and the Middle East, which the Chinese government worries could take root there.
The Tiananmen Mothers organization, representing those who lost children to government gunfire and tanks, were also in attendance — even though they were not allowed to travel from Beijing to Hong Kong.
In a statement issued before the vigil, the mothers said June 4 would always be “engraved” on Chinese people’s hearts.
“They cannot forget the men and women who were shot and crushed to death by the Chinese troops,” the group said. “The June 4 massacre will not be forgotten, even though it has been downplayed and blocked among the people in China.”
The mothers have documented 203 individuals who perished on June 3 and 4, 1989, but acknowledge that there are still victims who have never been found.
Last week the group revealed that some of their members had been approached by the government with the offer of possible financial compensation for their loss. It was not clear, however, whether such an offer would be expected to buy the families’ silence.
After 22 years, there are still at least five people who continue to serve jail time as a result of their involvement in the events of June 4.
And in an ominous sign, the Communist party’s powerful Politburo standing committee called last week for yet “stronger controls” over society on the mainland.
The committee asked China’s internal security forces — which now take a bigger slice of the national budget than even the military — to strengthen public security.