Tens of thousands of people gathered Sunday night local time to remember the day when China’s Communist government deployed tanks and troops in the heart of Beijing to put weeks of pro-democracy student protests to a bloody end. The number of fatalities remains unknown but is generally thought to be in the hundreds if not thousands.
By 8:25pm local time, six adjacent soccer fields had been filled with demonstrators braving the hot and muggy weather. They held up candles and smartphone screens in the night sky, chanted democracy slogans and sang songs. People posed for photos by a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue first erected in Beijing 28 years ago. Wreaths were laid for the Tiananmen dead.
Ken Chiu, a teacher in his 30s, came with his wife and two young children. “It’s education through action, to let them know what happened,” says Chiu, who adds that he was a schoolchild himself when the massacre took place and remembers his teacher breaking down in front of the class the day after.
“My [10-year-old] son now starts asking me what happened back then,” Chiu says.
Public discussion about Tiananmen has always been suppressed in China. Hong Kong — a British colony until it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 — remains the only place under Beijing’s effective jurisdiction that allows open memorialization of the crackdown.
But much has changed between now and 1989. In the past few years, Hong Kong has become a city seething with political discontent and has even witnessed the emergence of separatist and pro-independence sentiment.
The democracy movement launched a massive push for greater freedoms in 2014, with the 79-day street protests known as the Umbrella Revolution.
Then, two pro-independence activists found themselves briefly elected to the city’s legislature, before being ejected by a court at both the local administration and Beijing‘s behest. Attempts to unseat a few more legislators with democratic or separatist leanings are currently underway.
Now, a new leader is ab0ut to assume office, facing a populace more disgruntled and resigned than ever and the narrow manner of her election, while opposition activists are facing court cases for acts of civil disobedience.
Against the backdrop, the meaning of the annual June 4 vigil is shifting, especially among the city’s younger generation.
“June 4 is, in fact, like the Umbrella Movement of the last century in terms of its significance,” said Joshua Wong, the student activist who shot to international fame during the 2014 protests.
“Ten years ago, many Hong Kong people would have thought of June 4 as the start of the fight for democracy,” he told TIME, stressing the importance of its commemoration.
Many young people in Hong Kong, however, do not share that view, regarding China as a mere “next-door country” whose political struggles need not concern them explained Yuen Chan, a journalism instructor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
“The feeling is not only that ‘it hasn’t got anything to do with me,’ but it’s [also] seen as a kind of sentimental indulgence, almost, obstructing Hongkongers from achieving real autonomy, because [people are] mired in this memory, this linkage to the mainland,” she said.
To be sure, bickering over the anniversary’s local significance and relevance is nothing new, but the animosity and heated rhetoric in earlier years appear to be replaced by indifference and apathy this year from parties who are otherwise engaged in the fight for democracy, freedom and autonomy.
On June 4 last year, 11 tertiary student unions held meetings on Hong Kong identity instead of attending the candlelight vigil. Of those local media notes this year that almost half aren’t marking the date at all.
“The 1989 student movement and massacre definitely carry specific meanings for different generations and for Hong Kong, but we’re starting to see its significance fade among youngsters,” said Thomas Lee, external secretary of CUHK’s student union.
“We [separatists] are not going to deny that this is a tragedy or a case where a dictatorial regime massacres its own people,” said Chan Ho-tin, convenor of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. “It’s a crime against humanity, this needs no arguing.”
But for youngsters who “didn’t experience this firsthand, it’s something very distant,” he continued. “Second, we don’t think we’re Chinese. So that’s a great difference from those Hong Kong people who continue to attend the [candlelight] vigil” out of an emotional connection.
But for the old guard, the act of remembrance at Victoria Park remains powerful as ever.
Commemorating Tiananmen “has something to do with humanity, with upholding certain universal values,” says Albert Ho, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the candlelight vigil’s main organizer.
What’s more, the vigil “is a signal to the outside world about the tolerance level of Beijing to Hong Kong,” he told TIME.
He noted that recent attempt by Beijing to try steer Hong Kong’s education system to a more patriotic direction and stern warnings against secessionism “give the signal that the freedom we’ve been enjoying in the civil society will be threatened or curtailed.”
The extent to which these pressures can be sustained “depend on our determination, will power [and] commitment,” said Ho.
All agree that the task of resisting Beijing’s encroachment is daunting
“What 1989 revealed to the public of Hong Kong, in political terms, is that the Chinese government doesn’t allow for any space for compromise or negotiation,” Wong told TIME.
“As long as you live in Hong Kong, in the face of a communist regime exercising jurisdiction over you, you need to know its history, how it crushed protests in the past.”
—With reporting by Suyin Haynes and Feliz Solomon/Hong Kong