HONG KONG — Every year, Hong Kong residents gather in droves for the annual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen democracy protests. More than marking the brutal crackdown in Beijing 24 years ago, the event here increasingly symbolizes disaffection with rule by China.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to gather Tuesday evening at a large park in the former British colony, holding candles aloft to remember those killed when their protests in central Beijing were crushed by the Chinese military on June 4, 1989. Commemorations of the crackdown are suppressed everywhere else in China.
In Beijing, there was no sign of large-scale protest, but some people answered a call by activists to wear black to work in remembrance. As in previous years, many pro-democracy activists themselves were not allowed to leave their homes to mark the anniversary. On the country’s lively social media, searches for words including “commemorate” and “6_4” were banned, and the candle emoticon was removed.
In Hong Kong, the event has taken on a life of its own, with residents of the now-semiautonomous Chinese region expressing unhappiness that their administrators are still hand-picked by Beijing despite promises of more democracy.
“There are more people who want to use this vigil regarding June 4 as a way to protest against Beijing’s heavy-handed intervention in Hong Kong affairs,” said Willy Lam, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
When Hong Kongers poured into the streets in 1989, their sympathy with the protesters in Beijing had more to do with fears about impending Chinese rule — then eight years away. Now it’s about current problems that include corruption, a leader viewed by many as inept and tin-eared, and a yawning wealth gap that has stifled the aspirations of the city’s large middle-class.
And “of course it also expresses the anger of people over the Chinese government messing with our democratic reform,” said pro-democracy legislator Lee Cheuk-yan. Organizers hope to match last year’s turnout, which they estimated at 180,000 though police put the number at 85,000.
When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, it was allowed to keep its own political system and Western-style civil liberties such as freedom of speech until 2047. Residents can vote for some of their legislators, while others are chosen by business and other special interest groups. They’ve never been able to choose their leader, who during British colonial rule was dispatched from London. Since China retook control, the leader, now known as chief executive, has been chosen by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites.
Beijing has pledged to allow Hong Kongers to elect their leader by 2017 and elect all legislators in 2020 but no roadmap has been laid out. The lack of progress has led Hong Kong University professor Benny Tai to propose a protest movement in which supporters would occupy the city’s financial district in 2014 in a last-ditch attempt to press their demands for a genuine chief executive election.
Hong Kongers’ yearning for democracy is illustrated by their frustrations with current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who has been hit by a series of controversies since taking office less than a year ago.
Leung’s already poor approval rating plummeted further over the past few months, according to opinion polls by Hong Kong University researchers. Last week, a senior mainland official took the unusual step of denying there was a plan to replace him.
“One huge problem with C.Y. Leung is that he’s a yes-man; he’s regarded as a stooge of Beijing,” Lam said. Last year, protests forced Leung to back down from plans to require Chinese patriotism classes in schools, which some parents feared was a form of brainwashing. In January, he survived an impeachment attempt.
Leung took office with promises to provide more affordable housing but residents haven’t had much relief from high rents and home prices in Hong Kong, where tens of thousands live in cubicles, metal cages or other substandard housing even though it’s one of Asia’s richest cities.
His latest troubles revolve around a scandal involving a member of his Cabinet, Barry Cheung, who was also a key supporter of his bid for Hong Kong’s top job. Cheung was forced to resign from all his public positions after police launched an investigation into him and his fledgling Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange, which had to return its trading license last month, two years after it opened. Six people have also been arrested in connection with the investigation.
A spate of corruption scandals has raised worries about the integrity of public officials in Hong Kong, an Asian financial center that likes to boast of clean government and strong rule of law. In May, the city’s corruption watchdog launched a criminal investigation of its former chief over complaints of excessive spending on gifts and meals on visits with mainland Chinese officials.
Last year, the Independent Commission Against Corruption also investigated Leung’s predecessor over allegations he received favors like luxury travel and an upscale apartment from wealthy friends. Separately, a former chief secretary, the second highest ranking official, has been charged in a corruption case along with a pair of billionaire developers.
Tensions have also been growing over the unwelcome side-effects of increasing numbers of mainland visitors. Last year about 35 million visited Hong Kong, a cramped city of 7.1 million. Locals have taken to deriding their mainland cousins as “locusts” for their reputation for buying up luxury goods, apartments and even baby formula.
To calm rising anger over shortages of formula — coveted by mainland parents after China’s tainted milk scandal — the government in March prohibited visitors from leaving the city with more than two cans.
Following Tuesday’s vigil, some plan to march to the Chinese central government’s liaison office where, radical lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung said, they will demand the Communist Party end one-party rule, pay homage to the Tiananmen victims and release all political prisoners.