Causeway Bay, usually known as a middle-class shopping neighborhood in Hong Kong, was transformed on the evening of June 4th, 2012. Thousands of people walked in the streets towards Victoria Park to mark the twenty-third anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests, during which the Chinese army shot and killed students demonstrating for democracy. The vigil last week drew an estimated 180,000 people, an astounding number for this supposedly “a-political”  special administrative region of China. The city is known for its embrace of capitalism and its business prowess, and writers and journalists in the past have described the Hong Kong populace as politically complacent.

The recent election of Leung Chun-ying and the Hong Kong SAR’s deepening governmental ties with China, however, have given rise to new political anxieties which were reflected in the pro-democracy speeches at the vigil and the packed lawns of Victoria Park on June 4th. The main field was filled with demonstrators early in the evening, and by 8pm the adjoining fields were also crammed with attendees watching a video-broadcast of the event on movie screens. The surging crowds sang and chanted with protesters on megaphones as we approached the site of the vigil, and I was directed to the grass in a nearby park with the rest of the overflow crowd.

Hong Kong’s social and political independence from China, a result of its lengthy rule by the British, has been shrinking since the territory was handed back in 1997 to the Chinese government. In recent years, anxieties have surfaced for Hong Kong residents about the changes in Hong Kong’s freedoms, the role that China is playing in Hong Kong governance, and the identity of Hong Kong as distinct from mainland China. Hong Kong activists speculated that the huge crowds at the June 4th protest are an indication of the anxieties about Hong Kong’s future, and the desire for democracy. My interpreter and guide on June 4th taught me the Cantonese word for democracy, which was repeated in chants and songs throughout the two hour long candle-lit vigil. As a result of the transitional legal independence from China, Hong Kong was the only place in China allowed to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests and was thus the focal point for mainland protester contributions and expressions.

The vigil featured pro-democracy student activists from Hong Kong University, local musicians, and protesters from the original June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen protest. One of these protesters, Fang Zheng, spoke to the crowd, crying, and urged demonstrators not to forget the event and the impetus for it. Mothers of 1989 Tienanmen protesters gathered pictures of their deceased children, and vigil organizers played a slide show over a recorded statement from one of the mothers. A candlelit procession to the main stage carried a bier in memory of the deceased activists and the names of the deceased were intoned. These somber moments, interwoven with activists urging the crowd to consider the current political situation in Hong Kong, provided a rare moment for public action in Chinese territory regarding democracy.

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