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Hong Kong's Tiananmen vigil attracts record turnout

Event on 30th anniversary comes amid debate over changes to extradition law

People attend a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 4 to mark the 30th anniversary of the crackdown on the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

HONG KONG -- A record number of people here gathered on a muggy Tuesday night to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China's suppression of unarmed protesters at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, marking the milestone amid a debate on local extradition law.

The annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park drew over 180,000 people this year, according to the organizer, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. This number ties with the peak year of 2014.

"I am very moved by the immense turnout," Albert Ho Chun-yan, the alliance chairman and a veteran democracy activist, told reporters immediately following the event.

This year, the organizer linked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown with a controversial bill now before Hong Kong's Legislative Council that would amend the local extradition ordinance.

The bill would allow Hong Kong authorities to deport individuals to places that do not have formal extradition treaties, including mainland China.

"Seeking a vindication of the democracy movement in China [30 years ago] and fighting to protect our freedom in Hong Kong are tied together," Ho said.

Toru Kurata, a professor of Chinese and Hong Kong politics at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, echoed Ho's interpretation on the turnout.

"Of course, the 30-year milestone is a big factor, but the amendment of the extradition ordinance definitely stimulated people," Kurata said. As the territory's traditional pan-democrats, which overlap with core members of the candlelight vigil organizers, are active in opposing the amendment, "people have come to reevaluate the pan-democrats."

The police, which usually gives lower turnout figures than the organizer, said attendance was 37,000 at the rally's peak. Kurata, a longtime watcher of the vigil, described the police estimate as "too low."

For Hong Kong citizens who remember the Tiananmen crackdown through television footage and media reports, 30 years was not enough to erase the horror and sadness.

Two sisters, Cheung Yin, 46, and Cheung Lik, 40, both burst into tears when asked how they felt at the time. Lik, who has been a regular attendee at the vigil, brought her 5-year-old son for the second time.

"I want him to know what happened 30 years ago in China," she said. "We could talk about it now, but maybe not anymore next year."

Younger participants in the vigil shared a sense that their freedom is being curtailed. For Jack, a 35-year-old merchandiser, scenes of the Tiananmen crackdown are "something hard to forget."

Joanne, a 36-year-old secretary, agrees with her friend, and she thinks freedom and liberty have been endangered.

"I really worry about the future of Hong Kong," she said. "So we need to stand here and fight for our rights."

A recent survey compiled by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme suggests why more people are attending the vigil: 68% of respondents think China's government did the wrong thing 30 years ago, while only 19% thought it was right. And 59% think there should be a change in the official stand on the crackdown by Beijing, while 23% do not support such action.

The significance is that the younger generation, individuals who were not yet born when the crackdown took place, feels more strongly against China and the crackdown. For those ages 18-29, 83% believe Beijing was wrong and 74% think the official stance should be reversed, much higher than among older generations.

"Hong Kong people continue to think that they have a responsibility to promote democratic and economic developments in China," said Frank Lee Wai-Kin, research manager of the program. "The younger the respondents, the more they blame the Chinese government, the more they support the Beijing students, and the more they demand a reversion of the official stand on June Fourth. This probably reflects the demand for democracy among the younger generation."

A 22-year-old Hong Kong University student who went by the name of Ming is one of these youth. Ming said he joined the commemoration to show that he is "against the Chinese government." But at the same time, he fears "being retaliated against somehow, if my face and identity are revealed."

China kept tight control over its population ahead of the anniversary. Tiananmen Square and the surrounding area on Tuesday were heavily guarded by police officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, as well as by police and armored vehicles.

Beijing's official line portrays the anniversary as a nonevent. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, used the government's euphemism at Monday's daily news conference to describe the Tiananmen protests and crackdown as a "political wind wave and a related problem at the end of the 1980s."

Even the numbers signifying the date of the crackdown -- "89" and "64" or the combination of both -- are considered sensitive in China and unsearchable on the country's tightly controlled internet.

However, the commemorations for the crackdown 30 years ago are held elsewhere, too.

In the event at Freedom Square in central Taipei, Tseng Chien-yuan, chairman of the New School for Democracy, stressed that "the importance of voicing the message to protect our democracy in the Chinese-speaking world is rising," as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong. Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller kidnapped by Chinese agents in 2015 who lives in Taiwan, was present at the memorial.

That sense of insecurity is shared by Taiwan's youth as well. Sandy Liu, a local university student, said: "China's influence is increasing in Taiwan as well. I really felt we need to know more about the crackdown."

Nikkei staff writer Kensaku Ihara in Taipei contributed to this report.

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