HONG KONG – Crowds assembled in Hong Kong on Monday in memory of the victims of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, but young activists are increasingly questioning the annual vigil’s relevance.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has seen tens of thousands gather at the candlelit vigil in Victoria Park since 1990, while any mention of Beijing’s brutal crackdown on students calling for democracy on June 4, 1989, remains strictly censored in the mainland.
Organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a group of veteran campaigners, the vigil has always had the democratization of China as its central message.
However, since mass student-led Umbrella Movement rallies failed to win political reform for Hong Kong in 2014, more young activists and students have turned to “localism,” which focuses on local identity and autonomy and tends to reject any associations with China.
Some pro-independence activists call for a complete split from the mainland.
As a result, student unions in Hong Kong have boycotted the Tiananmen vigil for the past three years.
“China’s progress for democracy is really slow, and rather hopeless. If (the democracy movements of China and Hong Kong) are interlinked, wouldn’t that in turn negate Hong Kong’s progress?” the president of the University of Hong Kong’s student union, Wong Ching-fung, told local media last week.
A public opinion poll by the University of Hong Kong found that the proportion of people who think Hong Kong residents have “a responsibility to instigate the development of democracy in China” has dropped from 58 percent to 56 percent this year.
The proportion of those who believe Hong Kong residents do not have a responsibility to do so has climbed steadily since 2014 to 31 percent this year.
Although tens of thousands still turn up to the park, numbers have fallen and small alternative events are popping up around the city.
However, those who were there Monday said they still feel a duty to pay tribute to the demonstrators who died when Chinese authorities sent in tanks to crush a peaceful seven-week sit-in to demand democratic reforms.
Hundreds — by some estimates more than a thousand — were killed.
“If it’s not discussed, and the younger generation does not know about it, the memory of June 4 will weaken after a while,” teacher Karen Hung, 38, said at the vigil.
Retiree Sammy Au, 71, said he did not feel the vigil was about democratizing China but was a tribute to the “selfless” acts of the students who died.
“If I were the last person remaining, I would still come out,” he said.
The vigil came as two pro-independence former lawmakers were given four-week jail sentences Monday for participating in a fracas in the legislature in 2016.
A number of activists have been prosecuted on protest-related charges since the 2014 rallies as concerns grow that Hong Kong’s freedoms are under threat from Beijing.