Hong Kong, 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Hong Kongers will take part this week in the annual June 4 rally in memory of the Beijing students and workers killed in the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy activists eight years ago.
The candlelit vigil has been held in the British colony every year since June 4, 1989, when the People's Liberation Army sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to crush pro-democracy activists campaigning for an end to corruption and for political reform in the communist party. This year's rally will take on a special significance because it occurs less than a month before China resumes sovereignty over Hong Kong after more than 150 years of British colonial rule.
Those who take part will do so in the knowledge that it may be the last such public rally to commemorate the Tiananmen victims. This is because the incoming Beijing-approved government plans to give police greater power to ban demonstrations. This is part of a package of curbs on civil liberties which China says are needed to ensure "stability" after the July 1 handover.
In what was effectively a dress rehearsal for Wednesday's demonstration, thousands of people marched yesterday to the office of the Xinhua news agency, China's de facto embassy in Hong Kong, where they left wreaths and a large black banner. The banner was painted with the "Goddess of Democracy" statue erected in Tiananmen Square before the 1989 Chinese army crackdown.
Some leaders of the Hong Kong democracy movement said they might resort to civil disobedience in the face of any clampdown by the next government. Szeto Wah, chairman of the "Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China," told the crowd that if the alliance is persecuted by post-handover laws, it would protect its rights jealously by means of civil disobedience.
The alliance of more than 200 groups was set up after the Tiananmen crackdown. Beijing and Hong Kong-based Chinese officials have repeatedly said it is subversive and should be banned
Szeto told the rally that the authorities' willingness to tolerate the alliance should be seen as a litmus test of whether Hong Kong would enjoy its high degree of autonomy that has been promised by Beijing.
Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under the Anglo-Sino agreement of 1984 by which Beijing agreed to allow the colony to have a large measure of control over its own affairs, and to retain its freewheeling capitalist system for at least 50 years.
At the time the accords were hailed as a diplomatic triumph in Beijing and London. But many of Hong Kong's 6.4 million people had second thoughts after the Tiananmen crackdown which traumatized this small colony at the mouth of South China's Pearl River.
Immediately after the crackdown, an estimated one million people poured onto the streets of Hong Kong in anger, grief and fear after watching TV footage and hearing accounts of the shootings in Beijing. Analysts say Tiananmen Square was a defining moment in Hong Kong's history because it made many people focus on what will happen to civil liberties and individual freedoms after Beijing takes over. Many confronted the awkward question: will life be worse under Beijing's sovereignty than under British colonial rule?
The non-elected British governor has only belatedly acted to install democracy in Hong Kong, and to withdraw many repressive colonial-era laws. But the civil service is regarded as uncorrupted, there are no curbs on the lively media, and the legal system is seen as impartial.
The human rights group, Amnesty International (AI), will issue a document this week which claims that at least 300 of the 900 people arrested and jailed after Tiananmen are still in prisons across China.
According to a report in Sunday's "South China Morning Post," many of their sentences appear to be for crimes of violence, but AI researchers say terms such as "robbery" were applied to the act of picking up bullets from the Tiananmen Square environs.
Amnesty International is expected to call on Beijing to launch "an impartial and public inquiry" into the crackdown, something that is sure to fall on deaf ears in Beijing which still refuses to acknowledge that a massacre took place on June 4, 1989.
Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's China researcher, told the Post that it is "totally unacceptable that so many people are still imprisoned for this event (Tiananmen Square), which Chinese authorities would like to portray as being in the past."
"Sure it's in the past -- but not for these people or their families," she said.