BEIJING – Thousands of people gathered at a Hong Kong park Sunday in China's only known public event marking 17 years since Chinese troops crushed a pro-democracy protest at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing at least hundreds.
Mourners held aloft candles, creating a sea of lights at Hong Kong's Victoria Park. They observed a brief silence and sang a pro-democracy song, while organizers laid wreaths at a makeshift shrine dedicated to "martyrs of democracy."
Meanwhile, most of China didn't mark the occasion publicly because it is banned by the government. Police kept tight watch on Tiananmen and detained at least two people.
Discussion of the crackdown is still taboo in China outside of the semiautonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
China's authoritarian government has stood by the suppression of what it has called "counterrevolutionary" riots, saying it preserved social stability and paved the way for economic growth.
At the candlelight vigil in Hong Kong, 14-year-old student Eric Lau said, "I hope the Chinese government will recognize this dark history."
Retiree Yan San, 74, said he has attended the annual commemoration in Hong Kong since its debut in 1990.
"I have persisted in coming here for 17 years because I love freedom and democracy," he said.
The events of June 4, 1989 shocked Hong Kongers at a time when the territory was still a British colony but preparing to return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The bloody suppression fueled fears that Beijing would extend its authoritarian rule to Hong Kong.
Turnout at this year's vigil appeared smaller than last year, when police estimated that 22,000 people showed up.
Organizers claimed 44,000 attended this year but the actual size appeared to be in the high thousands. Police didn't immediately provide a figure.
The crowd size was likely hurt by rainy weather in recent days and the lack of major political disputes.
Wang Dan, a protest leader who was jailed after the 1989 protests and then exiled to the U.S., said in an article published in Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper Sunday that numbers are irrelevant.
"A major historic event like June 4 mainly lives in people's hearts," he said.
"Until the government reverses its position (on the 1989 protests), ordinary people won't easily forget the crackdown," Wang wrote.
Meanwhile, Chinese police monitored Tiananmen Square closely Sunday.
An elderly woman tried to pull out a poster with apparently political material written on it, and had it ripped up by police. They then took the woman off the square in a police van.
Just before midday, a farmer tried to stage a protest, apparently unrelated to the 1989 crackdown, and was taken away in a police van.
A group of tourists at the square just after dawn tried to open a banner while posing for a group photo, catching the attention of police who quickly forced them to put the nonpolitical material away. They were not detained.
Chinese television news and major newspapers did not mention the anniversary.
About 2,000 police were on guard in and around Beijing's "petitioner's village," a cluster of cheap hostels popular with people from the provinces who have come to the capital to complain to the central government.
Former student leader Wang said in his newspaper article he holds out hope China will loosen its political controls.
"Although so far we can't see any loosening, personally I'm confident that day will come," he said.
Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang, while in China's southwestern Yunnan province to attend a regional cooperation conference, urged his fellow citizens to look at the June 4 crackdown practically.
"Mainland China has undergone a level of change that has gained the world's attention in the past 17 years. These changes have brought much prosperity to Hong Kong ... so Hong Kong people can make an objective judgment," Tsang said.
Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, a fierce democracy advocate, disagreed with Tsang.
"How can we let it go? Should we just let it slide, forgive, pretend nothing happened? This is irresponsible. The successors of those responsible for the June 4 incident should give an explanation," Zen said.