Updated at 3:53 p.m. EST on 2012-06-04
Tens of thousands of people converged on Hong Kong's Victoria Park on Monday to mark the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square as Beijing muzzled online talk on commemorating the event, organizers said.
"The candlelight vigil didn't begin formally until 8.00 p.m., but people were coming there as soon as they got off work, and by 6.00 p.m. there was already a football field full," said Fang Zheng, a former student protester who lost both legs in the crackdown on protests that had gripped Beijing by the People's Liberation Army.
"The organizers ... estimated that this year, a total of 180,000 people took part," Fang said. However, police estimated the crowds reached 80,000 at their peak, he added.
Many of those taking part appeared to have come from mainland China.
"I came specially, because I wanted to understand this event," said a participant surnamed Zhang from Shenzhen, just across the internal border with mainland China.
"When I get back, I'm going to tell people about the facts of what happened from start to finish, so that the next generation knows about it too."
Another mainland resident surnamed Yang said she had never seen an event similar to the vigil in China, where the government has detained a string of activists and petitioners and banned Internet posts relating to the politically sensitive anniversary.
"These events took place in Beijing, a long way away from them ... but they are still coming here because of what happened in Tiananmen Square," she said. "It's very moving."
In mainland China, the authorities boosted security in the capital, especially in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, activists said.
"From May 31 to June 4 ... key personnel must reinforce preventive security measures and step up their efforts to seek out ... any intelligence reports related to the sensitive time of June 4," Beijing's Tongzhou district government said in a statement on its website this week.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the notice shows that the government regards itself as being on a war footing with regard to social stability around the anniversary.
"I'm pretty certain that the Beijing state security police headquarters are personally involved in [security arrangements,]" Hu said, adding that he had been forbidden to leave his home since Sunday.
"I don't know how long this will go on for, but it's clearly aimed at the period around June 4," he said. "There are more than 10 officers down there."
Jilin-based retired university professor Sun Wenguang said he was under very close guard after handing out leaflets to passers-by calling for a reappraisal of the official verdict on the events of June 4, 1989 in the city's Zhongshan park.
"It has never been this tight before," he said. "There are eight vehicles and they are keeping an extremely close watch on me today."
"They won't let me go out and buy groceries."
Beijing-based Zhang Xianling, a member of the Tiananmen Mothers group for relatives of those who died or were injured in the crackdown, said she had been refused permission visit her son's grave.
"This is a dictatorial regime which has implemented inhumane measures," she said. "What is so frightening about us commemorating our relative in a normal manner?"
"What right do they have to put us under surveillance and limit our movements? This is totally unreasonable, and it violates our human rights," Zhang said.
But she added: "It has been like this for so many years now."
In the Chinese capital, more than 80 rights campaigners met Saturday, carrying banners and shouting slogans calling for a reassessment of the 1989 protests.
"We shouted 'down with corruption,' and 'protect our rights'," Wang Yongfeng, a Shanghai activist who attended the protest, told Agence France-Presse.
"So many people were killed on June 4. We think the government should fully account for what happened," Wang said, as photographs of the Saturday protest posted online showed demonstrators with large placards reading "Remember our struggle for democracy, freedom, and rights as well as those heroes who met tragedy."
Hong Kong is the only region in China where the Tiananmen crackdown is openly commemorated.
Under the terms of its handover from British rule, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years, and former student activist Fang Zheng, who lost both legs during the crackdown, was allowed to enter Hong Kong to attend the vigil last week.
However, the territory has blocked former Tiananmen student leaders from entering the city to attend previous events on the sensitive June 4 anniversary.
Fang Zheng said he welcomed the opportunity to commemorate those who died when People's Liberation Army tanks cleared the Square of hunger-striking students and fellow protesters, amid bloody pitched battles with Beijing residents who tried to prevent them entering the capital.
"I have always wanted to attend the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park with my compatriots," Fang told a news conference on Friday. "They have kept up [this tradition] for so many years now, and they are a breakthrough force amid these dark times."
"Now that I have been allowed through immigration, I am happy to find that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy still remains," he said.
Sina Weibo user and Hong Kong financial journalist George Chen wrote on his account that many Hong Kong-based netizens had found their tweets on mainland Chinese microblogging services were invisible to anyone but themselves on Monday.
"Why have they singled out Hong Kong netizens? Everyone knows what they're thinking," said Chen's post, which was later removed from Sina Weibo.
Meanwhile, Chinese Internet portal Sina banned the use of candle emoticons on its hugely popular Weibo microblogging service, later also removing a torch linked to the London Olympics which had been pressed into service in its stead by users wishing to commemorate those who died on June 4, 1989, bloggers said.
Keyword searches for the Chinese characters for "candle" returned a message stating that the results were unavailable owing to "relevant policies and laws," while posts using clocks and watches to denote the anniversary were also soon deleted, according to the Shanghaiist blog.
Across the internal border in Hunan province, activist Ouyang Jinghua said police had confiscated political banners from his home that he was planning to display in his home city of Shaoyang.
The banners called for a reappraisal of the official verdict on the 1989 protest movement and subsequent crackdown, and for Premier Wen Jiabao to implement his plans for reforms to the political system.
"Get rid of the single-party dictatorship, and build a democratic society," Ouyang's banner said.
"They came to my home and took all of my banners away," Ouyang said on Sunday. "They said that we couldn't deal with it in this manner ... they said they had no choice, they couldn't give them back to me."
Fujian-based rights activist Wu Linxiang said she and her husband were detained after they unfurled a banner outside their local court building calling for a reappraisal of the June 4 incident.
"A lot of them came and took us away," Wu said. "They replaced the SD card in our camera and they deleted everything stored in our cell phones."
"They told us we had managed to prod through to heaven, and that we would be investigated by the higher-ups."
The Chinese authorities also detained hundreds of petitioners who gathered at central government offices in Beijing to seek redress for rights violations in their localities in a bid to prevent any Tiananmen crackdown commemoration events.
"They brought in a lot of buses and were rounding up petitioners at the Beijing South rail station on Saturday night," Zhou Jinxia, a petitioner from northeast China's Liaoning province, told Agence France-Presse.
"There were between 600 to 1,000 petitioners from all over China. We were processed, we had to register, and then they started sending people back to their hometowns."
The number of people killed when People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and troops entered Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 remains a mystery.
Beijing authorities once put the death toll at "nearly 300," but the central government, which labelled the six weeks of pro-democracy protests a “counterrevolutionary uprising,” has not issued an official toll or name list.
The crackdown, which officials styled in a news conference at the time as a necessary way to suppress a counterrevolutionary rebellion, sparked a wave of international condemnation, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah, as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.
The Chinese Red Cross initially reported 2,600 deaths but quickly retracted its statement, while the Tiananmen Mothers, which represents all victims of the crackdown who died or were maimed, says it has confirmed 186 deaths, although not all at the hands of the army.
The United States at the weekend called on China to release any remaining prisoners serving sentences linked to the crackdown.
"We renew our call for China to protect the universal human rights of all its citizens; release those who have been wrongfully detained, prosecuted, incarcerated, forcibly disappeared, or placed under house arrest; and end the ongoing harassment of human rights activists and their families," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement issued on Monday.
"On this the 23rd anniversary of the violent suppression by Chinese authorities of the spring 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the United States joins the international community in remembering the tragic loss of innocent lives," the statement said.
China hit out at Washington for interfering in its internal affairs, however.
"The U.S. side has been ignoring the facts and issuing such statements year after year, making baseless accusations against the Chinese government and arbitrarily interfering with China's internal affairs," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular news conference in Beijing on Monday.
"The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to such acts," Liu said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.