More than 150,000 people turned out to honor the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre at a vigil in Hong Kong Monday night organized to honor the 30th anniversary of a deadly, public crackdown on dissent by the Chinese government.
Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China sponsors the event, which takes place yearly. But this year, the vigil had special meaning. It has been exactly 30 years since that bloody day, when the Chinese government sent military forces, including a battalion of tanks, to quash a student uprising that was capturing the world’s attention.
South China Morning News reports that organizers believe 180,000 people turned out to march silently in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, some refugees or the children of refugees who left mainland China following the crackdown. Mothers and fathers of students killed in the massacre were also reportedly present.
Chinese state media far underestimated the turnout, reporting a crowd of less than 40,000.
In China, the commemoration took on a very different tenor. The Tiananmen Square massacre was marked at the site by a “wall of silence and extra security” according to AFP.
“Police checked the identification cards of every tourist and commuter leaving the subway near Tiananmen Square,” the outlet reported. “Foreign journalists were not allowed onto the square at all or warned by police not to take pictures. Officials told one reporter that ‘illegal media behaviour’ could impact visa renewals.”
AFP also reports that the Chinese government detained several dissidents ahead of the anniversary, cut off live streaming sites, and shut down web access in parts of the country so that regular Chinese citizens couldn’t access any information about the day.
By official count, the 1989 protests, which went on for three weeks before the Chinese government deployed the military to quash the demonstrations, left around 1,000 to 3,000 dead. Chinese soldiers chased down and murdered dissidents — mostly students — shooting randomly into crowds and stabbing the wounded with bayonets before they could escape to safety. In one particularly powerful, televised moment, a young Chinese student was seen standing firm in front of a group of tanks rolling through the square.
The student was crushed.
Recently revealed documents seem to indicate that the crackdown was even worse than initially reported. The Independent claims that “newly declassified documents” — secret British cables from within China to superiors abroad — put the death toll at more than 10,000, and describe the horrors of the Tiananmen Square massacre in graphic detail. Students were shot and stabbed and those who stood in the way of tanks were run over repeatedly. “Bulldozers” collected the students’ remains, and whatever was left was “incinerated and then hosed down drains.”
Thirty years on, conditions have not improved. Although the Chinese saw a brief expansion of social freedom in the early 2000s, new leadership has made surveilling and controlling the population a top priority. Even Hong Kong, where the demonstrations took place Monday night, is now faced with an extradition demand from the Chinese government, which might force Hong Kong’s administrators to turn over political dissidents who center their operations from the much more liberal island.