HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of people are to join a candlelit vigil in Hong Kong Thursday to mark the 26th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, with the city deeply divided ahead of a vote on how to choose its next leader.
Hong Kong is the only location on Chinese soil to see a major commemoration, with residents gathering in Victoria Park to mark the military’s brutal crushing of pro-democracy protests in central Beijing in 1989.
Hundreds — by some estimates more than a thousand — died after the Communist Party sent tanks to crush demonstrations in the square at the heart of Beijing, where student-led protesters had staged a peaceful seven-week sit-in to demand democratic reforms.
“This is an ongoing struggle for justice,” said Richard Tsoi of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organizes the Hong Kong vigil.
The US called for “an official accounting of the victims” of the 1989 crackdown, as well as the release from prison of those serving Tiananmen-related sentences.
The State Department also urged a halt to the harassment and detention of those who want to commemorate the anniversary.
“The United States urges the Chinese government to uphold its international commitments to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou also called for China to “redress the wrongs” of June 4.
Tsoi said he expects the event to pass peacefully, although it comes as tensions are high just two weeks ahead of a vote on the government’s controversial election roadmap.
The anniversary also comes after huge pro-democracy protests that paralyzed parts of the city for months last year.
The election proposal goes before the legislature on June 17 and lays out a plan for the first-ever public vote for Hong Kong’s chief executive.
It sticks to a stipulation from China that candidates must be screened, a ruling that triggered last year’s street rallies.
Campaigners call the proposal “fake democracy”, and opposition lawmakers have pledged to vote it down.
The split will be reflected Thursday, with pro-Beijing groups — who support the Hong Kong government’s election package — planning their own gatherings.
But there is also division within the pro-democracy camp.
Hong Kong University’s student union, which has taken part in all previous June 4 vigils and took a leading role in last year’s demonstrations, said it wants to “provide an alternative” on its campus this year, with 1,000 expected.
Organizers said they did not agree with the Alliance’s premise that democratization of China should be the prerequisite for democracy in Hong Kong.
“We would like to provide a different event so we can discuss Hong Kong’s future as Hong Kong people,” said union president Billy Fung.
The city is largely self-governed and has far greater civil liberties than on the mainland, where public discussion of Tiananmen is forbidden.
US-based group Chinese Human Rights Defenders said state security had detained dozens of activists in the Chinese provinces of Shaanxi and Hunan ahead of this year’s anniversary.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students also said it would not participate in the main event as an organization because members could not reach a consensus on whether to attend.
“We respect that this year some people will have other activities,” said Tsoi, “but we are confident that many people, including the new generation, will join our vigil.”