25 years of mourning
One by one the candles were lit, a steady stream that ran across the six football pitches stretching the width of Victoria Park, spilling over into the nearby basketball courts and central lawn. For the first time I was attending Hong Kong’s annual vigil commemorating the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, in the middle of a crowd numbering over 180,000 by organisers’ estimates. Here was a mass of citizens united in collective grief and anger, singing songs of remembrance.
Shortly after eight o’clock the floodlights were turned out and the sea of candles blazed in all its glory. I watched the flickering tongues of fire all around as slogans echoed in the humid night air. “Vindicate June 4! Fight till the end!”
The spotlight moved onto a small group of protest leaders, who solemnly carried an intricate floral wreath ringed in white – the colour of mourning in Chinese culture – while others read out the names of many Tiananmen victims, their ages, and how and where they were killed. Their overlapping voices reached a powerful crescendo as I listened in stunned silence. These victims came from all ages and walks of life – high school and university students; a nine-year-old girl shot to death at Muxidi, where the fiercest street battles took place; and a 41-year-old engineer killed outside the Beijing Hotel, which was then full of foreign correspondents and observers.
One of its guests at the time was Hong Kong activist Lee Cheuk-yan, now a leading figure of the territory’s pro-democracy camp. In a recent interview he recounted the “darkest hour” of his life, when he watched in horror from his balcony as the lights of Tiananmen Square were suddenly switched off. Then, the sound of gunfire ringing out in the darkness.
We watched harrowing footage of the violent crackdown, messages of support from exiled student leaders of 1989, and a video tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers, who continue to be persecuted for daring to seek justice for the deaths of their only children. A protest leader recited the names of those mothers who had recently passed and the entire audience bowed three times in honour of the dead.
The 25th anniversary of Tiananmen comes at a time when the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers are under serious threat. We have seen increasing levels of self-censorship, mostly out of business interests; the sacking of a famously vocal radio show host; and physical attacks on journalists, including the stabbing of a newspaper’s former chief editor in broad daylight. All this is coupled with mounting frustration over Beijing’s position on political reform, as opposing camps negotiate the terms of universal suffrage for Hong Kong in 2017. ◊