HONG KONG — As tens of thousands of people converged on Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on Wednesday night for an annual ceremony of remembrance and protest over the events of June 4, 1989, it was natural to wonder whether China wasn’t losing the battle to win over the people of Hong Kong.
Under the terms of the territory’s handover from British rule in 1997, China promised significant autonomy under the “one country, two systems” model. At the time, many here were happy to see the British go, but that sentiment has since gradually eroded.
China has promised the territory universal suffrage and genuine democracy in 2017, when the job of chief executive, the most powerful political role in Hong Kong, next comes up for grabs.
But many here fear that Beijing will fix the contest, to ensure one of its local allies wins. There are also growing concerns that China is gradually diluting Hong Kong’s cherished civil liberties and media freedom, while a massive influx of tourists and immigrants from mainland China has caused growing local resentment.
The resentment undermines any hope Beijing might have of persuading the people of Taiwan to ever join mainland China under a similar “one country, two systems” model, and it is a constant reminder of a democratic spirit among Chinese people that refuses to go away.
Those emotions were very visibly on show Wednesday. Organizers said 180,000 people converged on Victoria Park to remember the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died at the hands of the Chinese military. If that estimate of the crowd was accurate, it would represent the largest gathering at the annual ceremony. Sadness at events that occurred 25 years ago is gradually being replaced by anger.
People held up candles as organizers read an elegy to those who died, and they chanted their desire to end one-party dictatorship and build a democratic China, as well as bring to account those responsible for the killings.
Wearing bandannas that read “hope is with the people, change begins through struggle,” student leaders said the Chinese Communist Party was scared of its own people. But they also drew a direct link between events in China in 1989 and their own struggle for democracy now.
"Hong Kong people should stand up for democracy,” said student leader Zhou Wing Hong. “Democracy in Hong Kong is also threatened terribly, just like it was in China in 1989."
Organizers said that although the Communist Party was using “every means at their disposal… to eradicate everything that is June 4,” they would continue the struggle indefinitely.
"We can never accept that a Chinese regime massacred its young, slanders them as rioters, refuses to admit guilt and rejects responsibility to seek the truth," a leading member of the organizing alliance, Mak Hoi Wah, said in an elegy to the dead.
Organizers vowed to the crowd — which included people of all ages —that they would pass “the spirit” of the protest on to the next generation.
"The evil claw of communist dictatorship is digging its way into our city, suppressing freedom, stepping up interference, manipulating the promised democratic elections,” organizing chairman Lee Cheuk Yan said in a “declaration” during the ceremony. “Hong Kong's way out lies in forceful resistance in defense of our liberty, human rights, the rule of law and a genuine election system. We must also rise in support of our Chinese brethren in their struggle for these same values. The struggle is a common struggle: to pass on the baton of universal civilizing values to the next generation, to work for the end of one-party dictatorship and to build a democratic China."
A torch was lighted as people repeated their determination to “fight to the end” and bring democracy to China. Then people bowed their heads for a moment of silence as mournful music was played.
For the first time Wednesday, a pro-Beijing group tried to organize a rival event — screening a video just outside the park purporting to show "the truth of June 4." It claimed that protesters had seized weapons, shot soldiers dead and set military vehicles on fire. Images of bleeding soldiers and burning tanks were shown. But no one seemed to pay any attention, with a few dozen armed police officers guarding the video screen. Journalists far outnumbered onlookers. Those who stopped were unimpressed.
"It is twisted history," said a 63-year-old businessman, who said he had immigrated to Canada after 1989 and gave his name only as L. K. "My children have grown up enjoying democracy and are very open-minded."
Later, protesters jeered at the video, which was still playing on a loop, as they left the park and headed home on the metro.