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Hong Kong’s Angry, Anti-Mainland Counter-Vigil

Hong Kong’s Angry, Anti-Mainland Counter-Vigil

HONG KONG — On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, two vastly different commemoration events are taking place on the mainland’s edges. The annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, a tradition dating from 1990, attracted an estimated 180,000 attendees, according to organizers. Turnout appeared to top that of 2013, when the official estimate from the police was 54,000, while organizers claimed 150,000. But another, angrier, shadow commemoration emerged this year, one driven by Hong Kongers angry with what they view as elements of pro-mainland sentiment in the larger vigil.

The organizers of the new gathering — two groups called Civic Passion and the Proletariat Political Institute — claim to espouse a complete rejection of the Chinese Communist Party and its rule, rather than holding out hope for reconciliation, reform, or redress of past wrongs. The large banner hoisted on the stage read in Chinese: "Don’t Need [Chinese Government] to Redress June 4" and "Want the Demise of the Communist Regime." 

The new gathering only turned out a small fraction of the attendance at its storied counterpart in Victoria Park. The organizers claimed more than 7,000 were present, but police estimated approximately 3,060. The crowd filled the small open space between the Hong Kong Cultural Center and Victoria Harbor, underneath the historical Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower. The city’s iconic skyline, along the edge of the opposite bank, served as a dramatic backdrop to banners with the words "Localism, Democracy, and Anti-Communism." The organizers led a chant as they burned a Chinese Communist Party flag on stage: "Down with the Communist Party!"

The anger emanating from the podium was palpable. One speaker after another called for popular elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive without any restrictions on candidate nomination, a key sticking point for the planned 2017 election. Unless their demands are met, claimed the organizers, "We will occupy the LegCo" — shorthand for Hong Kong’s legislative body. The threatened move echoes March and April’s three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan by college students protesting a trade pact with mainland China.

Anxiety over possible erosion of cherished cultural symbols was also obvious. One video clip shown on the large screen implored attendees to "protect traditional Chinese script and [spoken] Cantonese," which are in use in Hong Kong, instead of simplified Chinese script and spoken mandarin Chinese, both the standard on the mainland.

Most members of the crowd amassed harborside were in their 20s and 30s. A young boy who carried a flag from colonial British Hong Kong — a provocative symbol of nostalgia for the city’s colonial past — looked no older than 15.  

It’s unclear how much these groups can effect change. Just a quick five-minute walk away on the Avenue of the Stars, a long stretch of waterfront promenade popular with tourists, all forms of mainland dialects could be heard as tourists posed for selfies, munched on ice cream, and took leisurely strolls with children in tow through the relatively cool evening air. At the end of the promenade hung a banner advertising an upcoming dragon boat race, in "celebration of the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China." It was sponsored by China Construction Bank, one of China’s largest state-owned banks.

The separate commemoration of the June 4 anniversary is only a symptom of growing discord among Hong Kong’s more radical nativist camps, which enjoy considerable support among young people here, and more established pro-democracy groups that still see changes in mainland China as the key to push forth Hong Kong’s own democratic reforms. As Hong Kong’s economic and political future become increasingly intertwined with China’s, the identity crisis among anxious locals will likely become even more apparent.