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article imageTens of thousands at Hong Kong Tiananmen vigil despite boycott

By Aaron Tam and Laura Mannering (AFP)     Jun 3, 2016 in World

Tens of thousands gathered Saturday for Hong Kong's commemoration of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown despite many young activists turning their backs on the candlelit vigil as calls grow for greater autonomy from China.

The vigil, which each year draws huge crowds to the city's Victoria Park, has caused a widening rift in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp between those who believe the victims of the crackdown should be remembered and those who see the event's message as increasingly irrelevant.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong is the only location on Chinese soil to see a major commemoration to mark the military's brutal crushing of pro-democracy protests in central Beijing in 1989.

But young activists from the new "localist" movement say Hong Kong should push for its own autonomy, even independence, rather than the democratisation of the mainland, which is part of the vigil's main message.

An activist sits in front of a poster of the "Tank Man" photo at his stall in Hong Kong on...
An activist sits in front of a poster of the "Tank Man" photo at his stall in Hong Kong on June 4, 2016, ahead of the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989
Anthony Wallace, AFP

Localism grew out of the failure of the 2014 student-led pro-democracy rallies to gain concessions from China on political reform for Hong Kong, and a growing number of student groups are now boycotting the vigil to hold alternative gatherings.

A small group of pro-independence activists ran onto the main stage in Victoria Park before the vigil began, demanding Hong Kong break away.

But the park still became a sea of candles as residents paid tribute to the Tiananmen victims -- organisers estimated 125,000 had attended, down from last year's 135,000.

They sang protest songs and chanted "Fight to the end" as footage of the bloody crackdown was shown on big screens.

One young student who took the stage said those boycotting the event did not represent the entire younger generation, to loud applause.

"This is a question of righteousness, so we persevere in coming here," a tearful Tong Hiu-yan, 21, told the crowds.

Participants hold candles during a vigil for the 27th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crack...
Participants hold candles during a vigil for the 27th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2016
Tengku Bahar, AFP

However, students at a forum at Hong Kong University said they felt little connection with the traditional commemoration.

"We're the new generation -- it is more meaningful for us to do this. We have to stand against the Chinese regime, but we also have to think about Hong Kong's future," said student Raven Kwok, 20, among hundreds who had gathered for the forum.

The president of HKU's student union, Althea Suen, said the fight was now about democracy for Hong Kong.

Building a democratic China was "not our responsibility", she said.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students -- a founding member of the alliance that organises the vigil -- also stayed away this year, saying the event had "lost touch".

- 'Never forget' -

Beijing students protesting in Tiananmen Square around a "Statue of Liberty" on May 30  19...
Beijing students protesting in Tiananmen Square around a "Statue of Liberty" on May 30, 1989, and (R) visitors walking near the same location 25 years later
, AFP/File

Some in the park said the event could be improved by seeking more discussion with newly emerged groups, but that without it the memory of Tiananmen could die.

"I feel really sad about this, even though I wasn't born (then)," Cecilia Ng, 19, told AFP. "Many of my classmates don't know or understand what happened."

Despite lower numbers than last year, organiser Albert Ho said there was no such regular protest gathering "in the history of mankind".

After the vigil, scuffles broke out as around 300 protesters marched to China's Hong Kong liaison office.

The confrontation happened when police tried to prevent the group walking in the road, but the march resumed peacefully.

They threw a placard demanding China free all prisoners of conscience over the wall of the liaison office compound and burned paper effigies of former mainland officials blamed for the Tiananmen crackdown.

People take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4  2015  to mark the crackdown on the p...
People take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2015, to mark the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989
Dale de la Rey, AFP/File

Hundreds -- by some estimates more than a thousand -- died after the Communist Party sent tanks to crush demonstrations in the square in the heart of Beijing, where student-led protesters had staged a peaceful seven-week sit-in to demand democratic reforms.

The protests are branded a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" by Chinese authorities and many on the mainland remain unaware of the crackdown.

On the mainland, police detained several activists linked to commemoration events while "Tiananmen Mothers" -- an association of parents who lost children during the violence -- were surrounded by security forces as they visited the graves of their loved ones on Saturday.

Tiananmen Square itself was also heavily policed.

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