In China's freest city, youth activists turn back on Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong annually marks the 1989 crackdown on Chinese protesters in Beijing and across China with a large outpouring of solidarity. Leaders of last year's 'Umbrella Movement' have a different take. 

Vincent Yu/AP
Tens of thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong Thursday, June 4, 2015. Hong Kongers joined the candlelight vigil Thursday night marking the crushing of the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square protests, an annual commemoration that takes on greater meaning for the city's young after last autumn's pro-democracy demonstrations sharpened their sense of unease with Beijing.

Several student groups that helped shut down Hong Kong’s business district for two months last fall opted out of the annual Tiananmen vigil Thursday, saying the city must focus on its own effort to establish democracy and remain politically independent of the mainland.

The June 4 gathering in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park is the only place in China where the 1989 massacres of democracy protesters can be commemorated.

Hong Kong is where many Tiananmen protesters escaped to in the aftermath. Thursday's candlelight vigil marked the 26th anniversary: Thousands flooded the streets of the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997 and is ruled semi-autonomously. 

Yet with Hong Kong staging its own “Occupy Central” protest last fall – a protest largely sparked by university students – generational divisions among democrats are opening up in China’s freest and most open city. 

Many student leaders in Hong Kong feel the traditional pro-democracy camp in the city has lost its way, including the organizers of the June 4 event, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. 

The Hong Kong Federation of Students and an assortment of smaller civic student groups have said they would not join this year's vigil. Younger student leaders say their seniors are ineffective in calling for China’s Communist Party to change and open up. They want to focus on getting free and fair elections in Hong Kong itself.

“If we just go for one night every year to attend the vigil and chant about building a democratic China,” says Billy Fung, president of Hong Kong University student union, quoted by the Associated Press, “then what you’re doing is just verbally supporting a cause, and you won’t help build a democratic China.”

Older democrats have expressed some frustration with their outspoken younger compatriots, saying that democracy in China and Hong Kong are not two separate issues and urging solidarity from students. 

The issue reached a head last fall when Beijing appeared to backtrack on what many in Hong Kong felt was an earlier promise to allow “full and free” elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Chinese leaders stipulated that only candidates vetted by the Communist Party could stand.

At the time, older democracy leaders in Hong Kong threatened to block roads in protest, only to lose their nerve. Student-led protesters, later dubbed the Umbrella Movement, went ahead and erected tent camps and blocked traffic. Senior figures in the democracy camp only appeared to join them fully after the protest became a popular success.

Now student leaders want to focus on building what many call a Hong Kong identity. They want a future for their own generation, to preserve Hong Kong’s Cantonese language, to maintain the city’s proud reputation as Asia’s finance hub, and its legacy of independence – and especially to hold back an influx of mainland Chinese they feel are slowly taking over.

Mak Hoi-wah, vice chairman of the alliance that is organizing today’s candlelight vigil, said he understands the feelings of students. He told Time magazine: 

“The young people want immediate solutions to problems because they’re frustrated and angry, they resent the government’s measures in Hong Kong as well as China,” Mak said, adding that these feelings could be what have now prompted them to shun the peaceful and symbolic gathering at Victoria Park. “But we do think that is very important because more than 150,000 people are coming to Victoria Park every year. We stand firm together to show our solidarity and to hold people accountable, this is the way we show our muscle and show our power.”

The democracy-camp divide in Hong Kong comes ahead of a key vote later this month by the Hong Kong legislature on whether to adopt Beijing’s approach to elections, Agence France-Presse reports. 

The Hong Kong vigil comes as tensions are high just two weeks ahead of a vote on the government's controversial election roadmap.It also follows huge pro-democracy protests that paralysed parts of the city for months last year.The election proposal goes before the legislature on June 17 and lays out a plan for the first ever public vote for Hong Kong's chief executive. It sticks to a stipulation from Beijing that candidates must be screened, a ruling that triggered last year's street rallies.Campaigners call the proposal "fake democracy", and opposition lawmakers have pledged to vote it down.

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