Alliance surmounts obstacles to keep candle burning for the June 4 vigil
It's long been Hong Kong's most visible June 4 remembrance. But the candlelight vigil's organisers this year faced unprecedented challenges
For 24 years, a group of Hongkongers has ensured that the city honours the protesters of Tiananmen Square with a public grieving - an event too dangerous to stage on the mainland.
This year, despite rival protests in Hong Kong and efforts by mainland authorities to quash commemorations there, at least 100,000 people gathered in Victoria Park last night to remember the Chinese citizens who pushed for democracy in 1989.
Since the first anniversary of the bloody crackdown, the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park has become the leading annual event of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. As it continues to fight for democracy on the mainland, the alliance has recently faced unprecedented challenges - tighter surveillance, more detentions, a split in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, and even competing commemorations.
Of course, the group's biggest goals have yet to be met: the release of all dissidents, and convincing the government to accurately account for the slaughter, including its reasons for using deadly force on peaceful demonstrators. "Reverse the verdict on June 4. Fight to the end," is the this year's slogan.
Watch: Hong Kong hosts China's largest -- and only -- 25th anniversary Tiananmen remembrance rally
"It has already been 25 years. We are worried. Hongkongers feel a sense of helplessness," said the alliance's chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan. A veteran lawmaker, he carried donations from Hongkongers to the protesters in 1989.
The alliance has had an eventful year. The group expanded its mission with April's opening of the world's first permanent museum dedicated to the crackdown, in Tsim Sha Tsui, and has raised HK$6 million towards its HK$9.76 million cost. Members have continued to spread information about jailed activists. But the sense of accomplishment has been overshadowed by friction.
Lee said he had been encouraged by the enthusiasm of mainland visitors to find out about the history of June 4. But he's been unnerved by the severity of the mainland authorities' suppression of rights activists before the 25th anniversary. Five people were detained after attending a seminar to discuss June 4, while Ding Zilin , founder of the Tiananmen Mothers' support group, was barred from returning to Beijing from Wuxi in Jiangsu province, her hometown. The detentions have stoked fears of a new and coordinated government plan to suppress liberal intellectuals. "The mainland regime has never before been so tense," Lee said.
The operation of the museum is being challenged, as the building's owners lodged a lawsuit, saying the use of the flat contravened the occupation permit.
"These are challenges we didn't face before. But we will persist. The June 4 museum will continue to run," Lee said. The museum has welcomed as many as 500 visitors on peak days, with an estimated 30 to 40 per cent from the mainland.
This year, the candlelight vigil has faced opposition from groups unhappy with the alliance's approach or its historical interpretation.
Four pan-democrat groups planned an alternative rally in Tsim Sha Tsui yesterday. Lawmaker Wong Yuk-man, who leads one of the groups, The Proletariat Political Institute, said the alliance's annual vigil was "too ceremonial" and routine.
Wong Yeung-tat, a member of Civic Passion, another participant in the alternative rally, said they wanted to harness the energy it generated to push for democracy in Hong Kong before the 2017 election.
"Unlike the alliance, we don't want to just create an atmosphere of sadness,'' Wong Yeungtat said. "Instead we will focus the discussion on Hong Kong's constitutional reform as an issue of local concern. We will mobilise participants to occupy the Legislative Council if the government lays out a reform proposal which allows Beijing to screen chief executive candidates."
Lee defended the alliance's approach. "Why should we change the format?" he asked. "Some people find me defensive, but I don't think we should make gimmicks … The June 4 candlelight vigil is not a carnival."
Some pro-Beijing groups have accused the alliance of misleading the public. At the museum's launch, , the group 6.4 Truth - then comprising five organisations, including the Justice Alliance and Defend Hong Kong Campaign - carried banners and wreaths to mourn the military deaths "caused by the students' riot". They also accused Lee of misleading people, saying there were deaths, but no massacre.
The alliance maintains a database of 202 victims' names, but says countless more died.
Patrick Ko Tat-pun, chairman of Voice of Loving Hong Kong, formerly a member organisation of 6.4 Truth, said his group would operate a booth outside Victoria Park last night to tell another side of the Tiananmen story. It showed a video claiming that no one died in Tiananmen Square.
"Objectively speaking, there were deaths and injuries and some civilians and students were shot [during protests in 1989]. However, it was not a 'massacre' as claimed by the alliance," Ko said in a debate on Monday with Lee on an RTHK radio broadcast. "The Chinese government had no choice but to take action."
Ko said the alliance and Lee encouraged the crackdown. "Lee Cheuk-yan, you and the alliance were the culprit," he said. "Had you not brought money to the students in Beijing, they would have run out of resources and eventually left."
Lee said the killings were a result of internal rifts in the Communist Party that fostered a power struggle.
Meanwhile, younger activists are pushing Lee and the alliance to attract new members.
The alliance's youth group chairwoman, Ashley Chau Man-fong, said the alliance had not paid enough attention to grooming youth.
Chau, who turns 25 next month, was elected to the alliance's 20-member standing committee last year. She said that while the youth group was active and had attracted student members in years past, members had lost momentum and seemed to exist only to volunteer at the alliance's activities. The group's youth are planning movie screenings and readings.
"Since the 1990s, people were already saying that the alliance is getting old or becoming male-dominated," she said. "So I wanted to rebuild a systematic platform … in which its members are [strong] in political discourse and critical thinking."
Younger citizens identified themselves as Hongkongers, not Chinese citizens, and were more sceptical about Beijing, she said.
Lee said the alliance believed it was important to pass on the fight for democracy to the younger generation, but it would not try to impose its views on young people.
"Patriotism can't be imposed and we won't persuade our young members to love China," Lee said. "Instead we will present them with facts about what the government has done during June 4. Even from a universal rights perspective, they will be moved."