HONG KONG (AP) — Defying their future ruler’s appeal to put the past to rest, tens of thousands of people squeezed into a Hong Kong park on Wednesday to commemorate — perhaps for the last time — the anniversary of China’s military attack on Tiananmen Square.
In Beijing, plainclothes police kept close watch on the square as tourists posed for pictures, but there was no sign of protest at the site where the army gunned down democracy protesters on June 4, 1989. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.
Candles lit up the darkness on Wednesday night in Hong Kong’s annual vigil for the slain demonstrators, a memorial that came only 27 days before China recovers Hong Kong from Britain. China has given no guarantee such rallies can be repeated, and many in the crowd felt this may be their last chance to honor the dead.
The peaceful protest was a striking act of conscience by a public often accused of just being interested in making money and not annoying China.
Demonstrators cut across many divisions — youngsters in blue jeans, old women in buttoned-up smocks, prosperous men in ties, blue-collar workers and families with children. All clutched white candles.
Organizers claimed 55,000 people took part, many more than past rallies. Police refused to give an estimate.
In one of the few open acts of defiance in China on this anniversary, a Chinese human rights campaigner emerged unrepentant from three years of forced labor on Wednesday and vowed to organize an independent political party.
Bao Ge, now 33, was a co-founder of the Shanghai-based Voice of Human Rights. Police arrested Bao, who is Christian, on June 3, 1994, before he could attend a prayer service to mourn the victims of the 1989 attack.
Another dissident, Shen Liangqing, called on Beijing to investigate the crackdown.
In Tokyo, several Chinese protesters led by Wu’er Kaixi, a prominent exiled dissident, scuffled with police outside the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo. Police blocked a driver who tried to ram a row of police vehicles. Two arrests were reported.
Hong Kong democrats say they will organize a rally every year until China reverses its verdict that the Tiananmen movement was “counterrevolutionary,” and declares the crackdown a mistake.
Such demands pose a critical test for China’s tolerance and its promises not to tamper with Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Tung Chee-hwa, the China-approved leader of Hong Kong’s incoming autonomous government, has promised to uphold those freedoms. But he says Hong Kong residents should put Tiananmen behind them and concentrate on making reunification with China work.
He has also ordered a rollback of some civil liberties to show China that Hong Kong will not be a base for subverting the ruling Communist Party. China views the whole Tiananmen Square democracy movement as subversive.
City Hall approved this year’s rally at Victoria Park, including a controversial three-story high sculpture called “the Pillar of Shame.” The massive sculpture, dramatically lit on Wednesday night, depicts twisted bodies with agonized faces.
However, City Hall has refused a request to display the sculpture during the July 1 handover extravaganza of fireworks and banquets.
“Why should we let demonstrators blemish the handover celebrations?” columnist Cai Heping asked Wednesday in Ta Kung Pao, a China-funded Hong Kong daily newspaper.
The stage for Wednesday night’s rally was adorned with a banner saying “Struggle to the end,” and a famous photo of a protester standing alone in front of a tank in 1989.
“What we’re doing here is against the Communist Party. They won’t allow us to do this. That’s why many people are here this time, because it’s the last time,” said Lam Ling-fat, 55, a travel agent.
As he spoke to a reporter, his cellular phone rang. It was his wife, begging him not to let his face be seen on TV so he won’t be arrested. Her argument did not deter him.
“I’ll be here every year. Every parade, I will come,” he said. “Whenever I read or think of Tiananmen Square, I cry. Even now.”