HONG KONG (CNN) — Tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong attended events across the city Saturday to mark the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, amid a split in the pro-democracy movement that could radically transform the city’s politics.
Leading student groups boycotted the decades-old candlelit vigil held in Victoria Park, over complaints the event has become “rigid” and too focused on Chinese issues, rather than advancing democracy in Hong Kong. One group even denounced the vigil organizers — members of the Hong Kong Alliance — as “pimps in a brothel.”
‘Nothing will stop us’
The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) — the city’s oldest and largest student organization — withdrew from the Alliance in the lead up to this year’s event, sparking fears that attendance would be far lower than in previous years.
Those fears proved to be unfounded, with the Alliance saying 125,000 people had poured into Victoria Park. Thousands more attended forums and ceremonies around the city organized by so-called “localist” groups, which advocate more autonomy or even independence for Hong Kong.
“Nothing could stop us remembering the Tiananmen crackdown tonight,” organizers told the crowd after a protester briefly burst on stage waving a colonial flag and calling for “Hong Kong independence.”
Speaking at Victoria Park, Jonathan Chan, an HKFS officer at the time of the massacre, denounced today’s students for abandoning the vigil, saying he would never attend an alternative event. At one point, young people in attendance were asked to stand, to widespread applause from the crowd.
Enoch, 14, who was at the Victoria Park vigil with his family, told CNN it was important for young people to remember the events of June 4, 1989.
“We have to support the (victims of the massacre) and make the Chinese government account for what they did,” he said.
At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, roughly 1,500 people attended a forum that began by criticizing the main vigil for being ineffective and ended with a discussion about how Hong Kong could achieve independence from China.
Speaking at the event, Ray Wong, the leader of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, said that mourning the Tiananmen massacre was no longer relevant to Hong Kong, and that it symbolized a misguided fantasy of reforming China. Instead, he said, Hong Kongers should focus on “building power” so that China’s Communist Party would one day have no choice but to grant independence to the former British colony.
One attendee, who described herself as “not Chinese, but a Hong Konger,” said she was sad that the students had turned against Hong Kong’s older democracy activists.
“The Communist Party is our common enemy, and we need to be united against them,” she said.
While the Victoria Park rally is just one event, there are concerns within the wider pro-democracy movement that the controversy is indicative of a bigger split that could affect the upcoming elections to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament.
“In a way this may be a prelude to the coming election, in terms of the differences between the two camps,” Lee Cheuk-yan, Labour Party lawmaker and secretary of the Alliance, told CNN last week.
The large turnout at this year’s event — which, while not as big as the last two years, was still well above early estimates — showed the ongoing importance of remembering Tiananmen Square, Alliance chairman Albert Ho told the Victoria Park crowd.
“In the history of mankind, there have never been so many people who have, for so many years, gathered in the same place and protested for the same cause,” he said.
“We are proud of Hong Kong.”