HONG KONG (AP) - It's become an annual tradition in Hong Kong for thousands of people to light candles and sing solemn songs to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests — the only public vigil allowed in China marking the bloody crackdown. But Sunday's 17th anniversary comes amid a debate on how pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong handle the Tiananmen killings, one of the most sensitive issues in the city.
The controversy centers around a new political party's failure to mention Tiananmen in its mission statement, a decision that has upset some who argue pressing China to address the crackdown is central to pushing for political reform in the communist nation.
Some have accused the Civic Party, formed by several widely respected lawmakers, of sacrificing its principles for the sake of better relations with communist rulers in Beijing. The bigger and older Democratic Party's platform condemns the "atrocity" and demands that China's government punish the officials who ordered the military crackdown.
Civic Party leaders argue they are just being practical and their outrage about the June 4, 1989 killings hasn't changed.
"You don't have strong feelings about June 4th today, then lose those strong feelings when you join a political party," said Civic Party leader Audrey Eu.
Tiananmen is an emotionally charged issue in Hong Kong because it happened as this former British colony was about to be handed back to Beijing and people were jittery about their future under Chinese rule.
Many Hong Kongers felt a bond with the students camped out on the square, sending them generous donations and holding solidarity rallies here. They were horrified when the soldiers and tanks rolled into Beijing and suppressed the pro-democracy protests.
Hundreds, if not thousands, died in the crackdown. It sent a message to Hong Kongers: The same thing could happen in this city, even though Beijing promised to rule by a "one country, two systems" formula after taking over in 1997.
Nearly a decade since the handover, Hong Kong still enjoys civil liberties that people on the mainland can only dream about. Street protests are common. Newspapers freely criticize leaders. Elections are held. Chinese troops are rarely seen.
But Hong Kongers still can't directly elect their leader, who's chosen by an 800-member committee loyal to Beijing. And they can only elect half of the 60-seat legislature. The other half is picked by groups representing professional sectors.
Beijing says Hong Kong isn't ready for universal suffrage.
Like other pro-democracy parties, the Civic Party's manifesto calls for full democracy. But it's silent about Tiananmen.
James Sung, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, said the Civic Party isn't bringing up Tiananmen because it wants to avoid the problems the more established Democratic Party is having with Beijing. Chinese leaders blacklisted many Democratic Party leaders partly because of their outspoken, long-standing positions on the crackdown.
Civic Party members "think that if they can leave out this hot issue, they can have a good relationship with Beijing," Sung said.
Sung said the party is also hoping to get more support from business.
"Many of the business sector people don't think political parties should insist that the June 4th incident be reviewed, and the Civic Party wants to please the business sector," he said.
But Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong said the group wasn't trying to curry favor with Beijing or big business. He said Tiananmen was left out of the manifesto because it was beyond the scope of the party's interests.
"We take the view that the Tiananmen incident is a matter that transcends the local boundary. It's a national matter," Tong said. "The Civic Party is a local party and concentrates on local matters."
Tong said the party sent out a circular to its 200 members urging them to attend Sunday's vigil, and he said the vast majority probably would. He said he planned to be there as in past years.
Prominent pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said he disagreed that Tiananmen was a national issue that shouldn't concern Hong Kong parties.
"We cannot separate Hong Kong and China," Lee said. "It would be naive to believe we can have democracy in Hong Kong, a faster pace of political reform, without China being more open to political reform."
"Addressing June 4th is a very important step toward political reform in China," he added.
It's unknown if the Civic Party's policy will mean better relations with Beijing, something many voters want.
Li Pang-kwong, a political analyst at Lingnan University, said Beijing was probably "observing and weighing how much real power this new party has."
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