HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tens of thousands attended a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on Thursday to mark China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, an anniversary given added poignancy by protests that gripped the Chinese-run city last year.
The political temperature is rising again in Hong Kong ahead of a June 17 vote on a Beijing-vetted electoral package that democrats say makes a mockery of pledges to eventually grant the city universal suffrage.
China sent in tanks to break up the student-led protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. China has never released a death toll but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.
Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule under a deal to preserve wide-ranging freedoms, is the only place on Chinese soil where commemorations of June 4 are tolerated. Even discussion of the 1989 protests, termed “counter-revolutionary” by Beijing, is taboo on the mainland.
In Beijing, security was tight at Tiananmen Square, with lines at bag checks hundreds of people long. A Reuters reporter saw a middle-aged woman holding a plastic rose hauled away from a checkpoint by authorities.
“Why won’t you let me go? Because you are thugs,” the woman yelled, before being dragged away by her arms and legs by three police officers.
The square itself was peaceful, with hundreds of tourists stopping to take photos in a slight drizzle.
At the Hong Kong vigil in the city’s harbour-side Victoria Park, tens of thousands gathered to remember the 1989 protests.
A statue of a goddess of democracy, which featured in the Tiananmen protests in 1989, stood in the midst of Victoria Park.
The figure was plastered with stickers of umbrellas - the symbol of defiance from the Hong Kong protests, when activists used umbrellas to shield themselves from police pepper spray and tear gas.
“The umbrella movement and June 4 commemoration share the same roots. Both China and Hong Kong need elections and democracy,” said a protester, who only gave his name as Wong.
But unlike the 1989 crackdown, police disbanded the Hong Kong Occupy Central protest after 79 days without serious violence.
The Tiananmen protests have been marked each year in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and organisers said the vigil drew 135,000 people, less than last year’s 25th anniversary that drew 180,000 people.
China has declined to make concessions on its blueprint for Hong Kong’s leadership election, under which a 1,200-member committee, packed with Beijing loyalists, will vet two or three candidates who will compete for votes to become the city leader.
The electoral blueprint requires a two-thirds majority in the 70-seat legislature to pass, but the city’s 27 pro-democracy lawmakers have vowed to block the package.
Speaking just before the vigil, 18-year-old student leader Joshua Wong called for a fresh wave of protests on the day lawmakers vote for the electoral package.
“The best way to inherit the June 4 spirit is to fight locally. Let’s surround the legislature on June 17,” Wong said.
Additional reporting by Hong Kong newsroom, and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie