Thousands Call For Reform, Protest 'Suppression' in Hong Kong on New Year's Day

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Marchers take to the streets of Hong Kong in protest at growing political suppression in the city and the decision not to pursue corruption cases against a former leader, Jan. 1, 2019.
Marchers take to the streets of Hong Kong in protest at growing political suppression in the city and the decision not to pursue corruption cases against a former leader, Jan. 1, 2019.

Thousands of marchers took to the streets of Hong Kong on Tuesday in protest at growing political suppression in the city and the decision not to pursue corruption cases against a former leader.

An estimated 5,000 people turned out for the march, some carrying banners calling for democratic reform, and others protesting a string of high-profile corruption allegations involving senior government figures and major companies.

The city's seven million residents are angry over a recent decision not to prosecute former chief executive Leung Chun-ying over alleged financial conflicts of interest during his time in office, and over shoddy construction at Hung Hom railway station, according to march organizer Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights Front.

Shouting slogans that included calls to prosecute Leung and for incumbent chief executive Carrie Lam to resign, the protesters marched from Causeway bay to government headquarters in Admiralty.

Others chanted: "Stop suppressing our citizens!" as police shouted warnings to the crowd not to gather outside government offices.

Meanwhile, more than 50 overseas Chinese veterans of the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square signed an open letter on New Year's Day calling for public commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the military crackdown on June 4, 1989, which falls this year.

The letter from former student leaders and activists including Wang Dan, Wu'er Kaixi, Zhou Fengsuo and Wang Juntao called for a reexamination of the trajectory Chinese politics has taken ever since, namely the abandonment of democratic reform.

"In 1989, Chinese students and people took to the streets to fight corruption and demand democracy," the letter read. "Their demands were suppressed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and a large number of people were killed or injured."

"Thirty years on, this historical wound is still bleeding," it said. "If the Chinese nation wants to move towards a more civilized state, it cannot continue to evade this major historical event."

"On the eve of the 30th anniversary, the whole world needs to reconstruct the memories of the past, resist totalitarian power, and fight for democracy," the letter said.

Xi Jinping tightens controls

Wang Juntao told RFA in an interview that the beliefs of former student leaders and activists exiled overseas in the wake of the crackdown have never changed.

"Those beliefs are that, without democracy and constitutional government, China's development can never be stable or long-lasting, and the Chinese people will be unable to enjoy the fruits of that development fairly," Wang said.

Hu Ping, honorary editor of the overseas Chinese political magazine Beijing Spring, said that the large scale commemoration of the June 4th is especially important for today's China.

"The 1989 democratic movement was a mass movement, not only in Chinese history but also in world history," Hu said. "Such movements are rare, and this movement showed that the Chinese people have a strong desire for democracy and freedom."

Hu and Wang both said it was the job of overseas dissidents to help the rest of the world to remember what happened in 1989.

The number of people who died when People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops cleared Beijing of thousands of protesters calling for democracy who had camped for weeks in on Tiananmen Square remains unclear and in dispute, and the government clamps down quickly on any public commemorative activities and censors discussion of the issue.

Victims' group the Tiananmen Mothers have compiled exact accounts of the deaths of 202 people across China, including Beijing. In the highest estimates, diplomatic cables from the U.S. and Britain declassified in the past five years cite Chinese government documents with estimates of 10,000 or slightly more.

However, younger people in China continue to bypass the "Great Firewall" of internet censorship to find out about the events of 1989, activists say.

The administration of President Xi Jinping has broadened government control over freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, and the right to political participation, continuing a trend set in place after the 1989 crackdown, and detaining hundreds of activists in recent years, rights groups say.

The Tiananmen massacre was preceded by a peaceful gatherings of students, workers, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other cities in April 1989 calling for freedom of expression, accountability, and an end to corruption, but the government responded by instituting martial law, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report issued on last year's anniversary.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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