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In Hong Kong, 30,000 Recall Tiananmen

Rights: Many surprised as China allows former British colony to honor dead on anniversary of 1989 massacre.

June 05, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — In a testament to the perseverance of people here and their new Chinese leaders' tolerance, a crowd exceeding 30,000 attended a rain-drenched rally Thursday to honor those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing.

The commemoration in harbor-side Victoria Park was the largest political gathering in Hong Kong--and in all of China--since the territory reverted to Chinese control last July.

Li Siu-wah, 40, a florist with a black mourning ribbon pinned on his shirt, was quietly proud, very wet and slightly surprised to be there.

"I have been coming here every year since 1989," he said, sitting on a stack of newspapers with his 5-year-old daughter. "I thought last year might be the last time we could do this. But now we are having this protest on Chinese soil, and that makes it the most important one yet."

Thousands of people took shelter under umbrellas on a stretch of soccer fields in the park, struggling to keep candles lit while singing and chanting about keeping democracy alive. The crowd was thinner than at last year's celebration, which drew almost 55,000 people.

But the evolution of attitudes, from anxiety to solidarity, was clear.

Last year's rally, held less than a month before China took control of Hong Kong, crackled with fear about the future. China's foreign minister, Qian Qichen, warned then that the Tiananmen Square commemoration would not be tolerated after 1997, and Hong Kong's new chief, Tung Chee-hwa, urged people to leave the "baggage" of the incident behind.

Still, defiantly and anxiously, people here held their candles high last year and demanded the release of then-imprisoned dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan. They worried that exiled activists in Hong Kong, such as Han Dongfang, would be arrested. Most of all, they feared that demonstrations like the annual, peaceful gathering would not be allowed by their new rulers.

But this year only the weather kept people from turning out.

Meanwhile, Han was on stage here, not in jail. Wang, who has since been freed by the Beijing regime, addressed the crowd on a live telephone hookup from New York. Wei, who also was released to exile in the West, appeared in a prerecorded video.

All the dissidents urged the people of Hong Kong to keep democracy and freedom alive and to help bring it to China.

"I am very moved by the concern of Hong Kong people for democracy in China," said Wang, released from prison in April on medical parole. "I'm sure Hong Kong will be the bedrock of the democracy movement in China."

Han, a labor leader who was jailed after the Tiananmen protests and then exiled, prodded the crowd about two infamous moments in Chinese history that cost people's lives or turned them upside down: "China's last two leaders, Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping--what did they give us? One gave us the Cultural Revolution. The other gave us June 4th. It's time for Chinese people to choose their own leader."

The dissidents' participation in Thursday's rally pleased people here--workers, housewives, doctors, students--who had called for the freedom of Wang and Wei the year before.

"But they are only two," said Florence Ng, a 21-year-old student at City University who was wearing a black T-shirt with characters reading, "Don't forget June 4." "There are so many left in prison."

Human rights groups such as Asia Watch and Amnesty International have documented more than 100 people who were jailed for role in the protests; other groups' estimates range into the thousands.

In Beijing, security was strong at Tiananmen Square. Two men were arrested after throwing leaflets in the air about a private grievance, and more than 20 political activists have been detained, the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movements in China reported.

As much as they would like to, neither Hong Kong nor China can leave the ghosts of Tiananmen Square behind.

To many, the day nine years ago that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters were killed by their own military was the moment that redefined the way Hong Kong and China look at each other.

Beijing branded the students and protesters as "subversives" and suspects that Hong Kong could be a potential base for government opposition. Hong Kong people fear the same sort of punishment could await them someday for criticizing the government in the way they were doing Thursday.

While Thursday's speakers urged China to become more like Hong Kong, there are lingering fears here that Hong Kong is moving in the other direction.

In the next legislative session, lawmakers must draw the boundaries for "subversion" and "treason," arousing concern that the definitions will include the mere expression of dissenting views.

But China's lack of interference in the year after the hand-over has done much to reassure Hong Kong citizens that Beijing will live by its pledge to allow the territory autonomy for 50 years.

"The fact that the rally can still be held after 1997 confirms China's hands-off policy," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University. "Right now, Beijing's consideration for Hong Kong's prosperity and stability outweigh the Chinese leadership's ideology."

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