There was no singing of patriotic songs, no slogans about “building a democratic China”.
Fewer people showed up but the fervor and solemnity of Thursday’s memorial for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown were undiminished after 26 years.
None of this was accidental.
The more subdued tone of the vigil was a turning point for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China after recent criticism that it should instead work for democracy in Hong Kong.
On Thursday, hours before the gathering in Victoria Park, the alliance was still trying to shore up attendance, calling on pro-democracy groups to set aside their disagreement with its objectives to ensure a successful event.
Still, it failed to convince the University of Hong Kong student union to reconsider its decision not to attend.
The union held its own observance on the school grounds, eschewing the usual practice of calling for democracy in China and mourning the Tiananmen victims.
Instead, it focused on promoting democracy in Hong Kong.
Other groups held separate vigils, some sticking to the old script, others in their own way.
Not surprisingly, the turnout, estimated by organizers at 130,000 to 135,000, was the lowest since 2008. Police put the number at 46,000.
Nonetheless, the alliance should be satisfied with the outcome, having had a hard time making the case for a memorial as people knew it.
It was time to take it in a different direction.
So perhaps the vigil will be remembered not for what was missing but for what was new.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the program, representatives from four student groups mounted the stage to demand changes to the Basic Law.
They burned copies of the document to symbolize their point that the mini constitution serves no purpose unless changes are made so that its interpretation will be up to Hong Kong people, not the Chinese parliament.
Chinese dissidents were given air time and they responded by urging Hong Kong people to reject economic benefits from Beijing at the expense of their rights and freedoms.
And images of yellow umbrellas sprang up as the crowd sang a theme from last year’s street protests.
The entire program was not so much about Tiananmen as it was about Hong Kong, reminding people that the fight for democracy is here, not across the border.
That is a takeaway from the 79-day street occupation by pro-democracy protesters last year which inspired a new Hong Kong mindset.
It’s about Hong Kong people looking after themselves, not relying on Beijing’s promises about their democratic future.
Ultimately, it comes down to the most pressing issue confronting them — the selection of their next leader.
It will take the alliance some time to transform itself into a more Hong Kong-focused group after nearly three decades fighting for democracy in China.
Already, it is causing some divisions in society.
While it is well to remember that the Tiananmen tragedy galvanized democratic forces in Hong Kong, it’s also useful to acknowledge that it gave China a pretext to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
Somewhere between these two realities is a question that begs an answer — what to do about June 4.
Hong Kong people can have different ways to commemorate it while being respectful of their differences and of each other.
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