HONG KONG - Maybe it was the recession, maybe it was the government's toughening stance toward critics and maybe it was competition from the World Cup, but the annual candlelight vigil here to remember the protesters killed by the Chinese military in Beijing's Tiananmen Square drew a sparser crowd than usual last night.
Organizers estimated the crowd at 45,000 people, down slightly from their estimate of 50,000 last year. The police, who have come up with slightly smaller estimates than the organizers for previous vigils, said 12,000 people showed up yesterday. Despite unusually crisp, cool weather with few clouds, organizers had large boxes of leftover candles, and there were few of the usual lines to enter the park where the commemoration was held.
Following a tradition that has developed on the anniversary of the date that the Chinese military killed students who occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989, the protesters sang songs that put mournful lyrics to uplifting contemporary music. The effect was part memorial service and part karaoke.
Szeto Wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organizes the demonstrations, said attendance had been hurt by Hong Kong's weak economy, which has been in recession since last summer, with record unemployment of 7.1 percent. "Definitely there is a certain effect," he said. "They don't know the poor economy and democracy are two different things."
While Hong Kong's economy has been struggling, China's economy has been booming, and that has improved the perception of China's leaders among Hong Kong residents, said Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a nonprofit academic research group with a reputation for impartiality.
The project's polls indicate that more than half of Hong Kong's population is satisfied with Beijing's rule of China and, separately, with Beijing's handling of Hong Kong affairs. As recently as 1995, only one-sixth of Hong Kong residents polled said they approved of Beijing's actions. Hong Kong's government has lower poll ratings here than Beijing's.
The alliance also disclosed financial difficulties in a summary of accounts last night. The alliance had accumulated a cash reserve in the 1990s as donations exceeded spending. But donations have tumbled, and a widening deficit has forced the group to halt advertising and other promotional activities.
Hong Kong's hardening stance toward critics might also have discouraged a few people from attending, Szeto said. The government has arrested three people for unlawful assembly and rounded up Chinese immigrants who have lost court cases to remain in Hong Kong.
Protesters were encouraged yesterday to bring their children to teach them about what happened in Tiananmen Square. "I want to find out why some great people are killed, are shot," said Ling Tin-yu, a 9-year-old whose mother brought him and his little brother, Ling Tin-long, who is 3.
Some people might also have stayed home to watch soccer yesterday. The World Cup has been a bigger preoccupation here than politics lately. It was not a happy day for local soccer fans, however, as Costa Rica beat China, 2-0, in China's first appearance in the World Cup final round of 32 nations. China's match ended four hours before the vigil, but another match, pitting South Korea against Poland, was televised during the vigil.