Hong Kong, 9 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Some 55,000 people in the British colony of Hong Kong took part in a candlelit vigil last week to mark the eighth anniversary of China's crackdown on pro democracy activists in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The vigil took on a special significance because human rights activists fear it could be the last to be permitted in the territory which will be returned to China's sovereignty at midnight on June 30.
The bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square still traumatizes this colony of 6.4 million mostly Cantonese people because it raised fears that Beijing will interfere with civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Before the Wednesday night vigil, the future leader of Hong Kong, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, urged people to "put the baggage" of Tiananmen Square behind them, and consider the progress China has made since then, and prospects of reunification with the "motherland".
But Hong Kongers from all walks of life ignored the plea by their Beijing-approved chief executive-designate, and gathered in a city park where they vowed never to forget the bloody events of 1989.
It was the largest turnout for such a vigil since 1992, and was seen as a pre-handover show of defiance to the Chinese Communist Party.
Polls show that a majority of Hong Kongers share the views of the
demonstrators although they are loath to take part in protest rallies.
Amid a sea of candles, Szeto Wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, gave a eulogy to the students and their supporters who died in 1989.
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.
Referring to Tiananmen's victims, Szeto said: "eight years -- 2,922 days and nights -- have passed. Tonight we are again using sparks of candlelight, solidified drops of tears, to remember you and mourn you"
He repeated the alliance's call on China to release jailed dissidents and vindicate the 1989 pro-democracy movement. He also said that those responsible for the crackdown should be held accountable.
The vigil began with somber music and the laying of wreaths in memory of those killed in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The vigil was held around an eight-meter high sculpture, the "Pillar of Shame" meant to symbolize suffering from oppression. Chinese language characters over a huge stage said: "struggle to the End."
Chief Executive designate Tung, appointed by Beijing to replace British governor Chris Patten at midnight on June 30, had said it was more important for people to focus on Hong Kong's imminent return to Chinese rule. But his comments were criticized by rally organizers.
Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee, one of the most vocal human rights activists in Hong Kong, said it would be very wrong for the future government to try to stop peaceful demonstrations of this kind. He said: "I hope Mr Tung will not do it."
Lee said he would certainly return to mark the June 4 anniversary next year. He said the demonstrators wanted to give a message to Chinese leaders that Hong Kong's people "want the verdict on the 1989 movement to be reversed from counter-revolutionary to patriotic."
Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China's 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.
Among most ordinary people in China, the return of Hong Kong has triggered feelings of nationalist pride, and the feeling that the evils inherited from 19th century colonialism are to be eradicated. "The main thing is that Chinese people will be ruled by Chinese people, not foreigners," was a typical comment of a mainland Chinese in Beijing.
But, in Hong Kong itself, many are apprehensive about the handover. This uneasiness has been deepened by Tungts plans to curtail civil liberties, including the introduction of new restrictions on the right to stage public demonstrations.
In a comment in the respected Asia Times newspaper, columnist Stephen Vines writes: "The main reason why China is insisting that the incoming administration in Hong Kong rolls back civil liberties legislation is because Beijing is haunted by the fear that this tiny little territory will become a base for subversion."
Although Britain has moved only belatedly to install democracy in Hong Kong, the territory has a tradition of freedom denied to people on the mainland, including a free press and an impartial legal system.
Vines commented: "in many ways, the Chinese leadership is right. Who can deny that Hong Kong is a haven for democracy activities? Who can deny that they enjoy freedoms which would land them in jail on the Chinese mainland? And who can deny that ideas and information emanating from Hong Kong are seeping back into China?"
Vines said: "instead of being intellectually dishonest about Hong Kong's role in changing China, it might be better to face the facts and admit the existence of a very real problem, while viewing that problem in a realistic perspective." And he added: "it must be acknowledged that Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty will inevitably be under constraints which did not exist under British rule."