Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents braved torrential rain to attend a candlelight vigil marking the 24th anniversary of Beijing’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Organizers of Tuesday’s annual vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park claimed a turnout of 150,000 people, while police gave a smaller estimate of 54,000.
Some of those who gathered in the park left when the rains started, but many stayed, huddling under umbrellas and chanting slogans calling on China’s Communist leaders to vindicate the 1989 protest movement in Beijing’s main square.
Chinese troops backed by tanks crushed the student-led demonstration on June 4 of that year, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people. Beijing considers the protest to be a counter-revolutionary rebellion and blocks annual attempts by pro-democracy activists to commemorate the killings.
Residents of the former British colony of Hong Kong have retained the right to protest since it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The chairwoman of Hong Kong’s main opposition Democratic Party, Emily Lau, was at the latest vigil, organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. Speaking to a reporter by phone, she said many locals still have strong emotions about the Tiananmen crackdown.
“They really feel that China should move forward, should have an investigation to set this whole thing to rest,” Ms. Lau said. “So, in a way, the Hong Kong people are very, very persistent. Twenty-four years is a very long time, and these people keep turning up every year and they keep giving money to the Patriotic Alliance.”
The rainstorm forced organizers to end Tuesday’s rally after 50 minutes, the first time it has been cut short. Ms. Lau was among those who ran for cover.
“We were all drenched,” she said. “It was pouring down with rain. It was like a river flowing. Some people left. I left early too because we got so completely soaked. But there were lots and lots of people going in, and all the football pitches were filled up, and they had to move over to the grass land.”
Speakers at the vigil also vowed to keep fighting against what they see as Beijing’s attempt to slow Hong Kong’s progress toward universal suffrage for the city’s leader and legislature in the coming years.
Turnout estimates for last year’s event ranged from 180,000 people, as claimed by organizers, to 85,000 as reported by police.
In Beijing, police were on guard for possible protests at Tiananmen Square and other prominent areas.
Many Chinese activists already had been detained, placed under house arrest or monitored closely in the lead-up to the sensitive anniversary.
Chinese government censors also tried to block any reference to the anniversary on social media sites. China’s popular Sina Weibo service even removed a candle icon to prevent subscribers from displaying it as part of a digital vigil.
Ms. Lau said such actions have tarnished the image of the new Chinese Communist rulers who took office last November in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“The impression is that the new leadership is very, very tough and, in fact, things are getting from bad to worse,” Ms. Lau said. “So it is exceedingly disappointing, because some people thought that President Xi Jinping is going to be some kind of reformist. But I guess all those dreams have been dashed. Nevertheless, the people still want to soldier on, because they want to see a democratic China.”
Earlier this year, Xi called for more political courage to deepen reform in China and said the ruling party must improve its policies to benefit more people in a fairer way.
But he also said the process of opening up the state is a long-term, arduous and onerous cause which needs efforts from generation to generation.