HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of people, young and old, flooded into Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil Tuesday night to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Organizers called it a “record turnout” and said it was the largest number of attendees since 2014, when Hong Kong was rocked by pro-democracy protests that brought large parts of the city to a standstill for months.
The events of June 4, 1989 — when as many as 10,000 student protesters were killed in a brutal military crackdown ordered by the Chinese government — have been forcibly erased from the history books in mainland China. But in Hong Kong, the memory lives on, and on Tuesday, tens of thousands of people gathered in a park to chant, sing, and listen to survivors tell their stories.
Roughly 180,000 people attended the vigil, according to organizers, although the official police estimate was a fraction of that.
But the massive showing wasn't just about fighting back against China’s mass erasure of history. Many were also there to voice their opposition to a recent proposal by the Hong Kong government of a controversial bill that would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to China. People fear the law would further erode the semi-autonomous city’s freedom and independence.
Beijing has begun to assert its influence in noticeable ways. In May, eight leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests were sentenced on charges of “public nuisance.” Last year, Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet was forced to leave the city after being denied a working visa, which was widely believed to be in retaliation for chairing a talk with an activist who advocates Hong Kong independence. And in 2016, six pro-democracy lawmakers were expelled from the city’s legislative body.
In that environment, the events of Tiananmen Square have taken on more urgency.
“We are being oppressed just like the protesters were on June 4 [in 1989]. Except with us, China is not using tanks,” said Carrie. A 28-year-old Hong Konger, like almost all the attendees who spoke to VICE News, asked to withhold her last name for fear of retaliation.
VICE News spoke to young protesters about the 30-year anniversary of Tiananmen Square and what the event, and its memory, means to them.
Siu Ching with her daughter, Ching Ching and her friend
Siu Ching said she takes her 5-year-old daughter, Ching Ching, to the vigil every year because she “want[s] them to know what happened.” Ching Ching explained it in her own words: “Because before our brothers and sisters, in order to protect their younger siblings, fought against bad people. Then the bad people killed them.”
“I want everyone to remember this incident happened. If I didn’t come, or if no one came, then we’d forget it. I don’t just love Hong Kong; I also love China," Angela, 25, told VICE News. ”This happened to our country. It has been imprinted in our country’s history.”
“This is an incident that should be remembered. Coming here is so easy, so why not do something so that it will be remembered? I wasn’t born yet,” said Chris, 29. ”But If you only remember what happens after you’re born, you would remember too little.”
Timothy, 28, has been coming to these protests for more than half his life. Often he stays after to help clean up. “This year will be my 16th year. To be honest, Hong Kong people can’t pretend it didn’t happen,” he told VICE News. “If [the Chinese government] can do that to people in the mainland, then one day they might do the same thing to us in Hong Kong.”
Ms. To and her son
Ms. To, 30, was born just months before the Tiananmen massacre. She’s lost count of the number of times she’s attended the vigil, but now she comes with her 2-year-old son, Lok-tin.
“I hope my kid can know about this. I hope for us that he can keep trying to have June 4 vindicated, because I believe that the government won’t do it in my lifetime,” she said. “I hope all the students who died can find peace. And I hope the government can progress and not just erase history and pretend nothing happened.”
Cover: Carrie, 28, has been coming every year since she was 14. She said: “I first came because I felt that the June 4 incident was tragic. But now I think that June 4 has more and more to do with Hong Kong’s political situation, or the things we’re fighting against. Every year is important, but this year is even more important because after this, we have the June 9 [anti-extradition protests].”
Photos and text by Laurel Chor.