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Hong Kong Handover: 50,000 defy China to remember Tiananmen

As many as 55,000 Hong Kong people have defied both the Chinese government and the territory's incoming post-colonial administration by joining one of the biggest rallies held to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

With only three weeks to go before the handover to Chinese rule, a sombre crowd last night listened intently as Szeto Wah, one of the democracy movement's leaders, told them that he did not underestimate "the difficulties and dangers that lay ahead of us, and the price we have to pay". He vowed that the movement would continue "even when the seas run dry and the rocks crumble".

Another of the rally's organisers, Kong Ho-sui, said that even if rallies of this kind were banned next year, the people would assemble at the same time and place as individuals and would defy the authorities to stop them.

Standing under a massive banner inscribed with the Chinese characters for "fight to the end", Yeung Sum, a legislator and rally organiser, said civil disobedience might be necessary in future if Hong Kong wished to continue supporting China's democracy movement.

Last night's demonstration was far bigger than in recent years. "We are going back to China, so we have to stand up", said Lau San-ching, a former political prisoner in China who joined the demonstration. He believed Hong Kong had a better chance of influencing China once it returned to Chinese sovereignty. "However many people we get to demonstrate, it doesn't matter, because we will be demonstrating in a part of China", he said.

As usual, the democracy movement managed to mobilise an impressive cross- section of the population ranging from babes in arms to the frail and elderly. Factory workers in grubby T-shirts mixed with smartly dressed executives in designer-made casual clothing.

In the sweltering heat of a humid Hong Kong summer night the crowd sang patriotic songs and roared slogans calling for the release of dissidents, freedom, democracy and an end to one party dictatorship. They waved small candles in the air as they stood in silent tribute to those who died in Tiananmen Square eight years ago.

Some of those attending the rally said they would not dare to come again next year, but others were determined not to be cowed. Opinion polls show a remarkably high degree of support for the democracy movement and an equally large number of people who believe that their protest activities will be doomed under the new government.

The sensitivity surrounding last night's rally is reflected in the row over a statue called the "Pillar of Shame" by the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot. The statue was displayed at the rally but had to be taken down within an hour of its end. Applications for its temporary display in a public place have been turned down by local councils and universities. The Chinese authorities and the incoming government have declined to make it clear whether protests of this kind will be legal after 1 July. Nor is it known whether the alliance which organises this annual commemoration will be banned.

Tung Chee-hwa, the Chief Executive-designate of the new government, called on Hong Kong people to put down the "June 4 baggage". He said they should look forward to the prospect of reunification with China rather than backwards to an event eight years ago.

Cui Tiankai, China's foreign ministry spokesman, joined Mr Tung in refusing to say whether democracy protests would be banned, but dismissed the protesters as irrelevant. "The thing Hong Kong's 6 million residents are most concerned about is the act of reunification with China", he said.

The new regime will introduce laws to outlaw activities which undermine "national security". The precise nature of these activities has not been defined, aside from a statement by Mr Tung's office saying that the new government will ban organisations and activities which challenge "the safeguarding of the territorial integrity and the independence of the People's Republic of China".

China insisted on introducing laws covering subversion and national security following the mass protests in Hong Kong after the 1989 massacre. The Chinese government felt challenged when as many as a fifth of the population came out on the streets to protest at this time.

The passion and sadness of eight years ago has now faded, but memories of Tiananmen remain surprisingly vivid and fears of something similar happening in Hong Kong are not entirely absent.