The Hong Kong government is about to win approval of an anti-subversion bill — which carries life prison sentences for many crimes against the state. Critics fear the former British colony could find itself subjected to mainland-style suppression of unpopular views, although Hong Kong insists this is not an issue.
Thousands of people gathered for a candlelight ceremony commemorating Tiananmen and hoping they can some day heal wounds that still cut deep here —14 years after China used tanks and troops to stop the student democracy movement in Beijing on June 4, 1989.
"A democratic China is something that I've wanted since the massacre," said Pauline Wong, a clerk. "But it's going to be a long road before it can become a reality."
Her 8-year-old son, Ernest, agreed.
"The people who died on June 4 were heroes," the boy said.
Activists placed flower bouquets around a mock gray monument to honor those who died in the crackdown. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.
"They died for liberty," said John Mak, a teacher and devout Christian who fears he may someday need his Canadian passport to flee Hong Kong and keep practicing his religion. "Hopefully someday mainland China will listen."
This year's Tiananmen demonstration was accompanied by worries among many about how long they can keep speaking out.
"If you say something bad — not bad, something the government doesn't like — you could go to jail or be fined," said Mak's sister, Donna, a legislative assistant. Even for "a gathering like this."
Secretary for Security Regina Ip has called such fears inaccurate and insists Hong Kong's civil rights are untouchable.
Ip says the law is intended to stop people from attempting to violently overthrow the central government or to undermine China's national security — not to stifle political or religious views that can be freely expressed in Hong Kong.
Asked for an opinion, import-export businessman David Ko wrapped his hands around his neck like a noose.
"This is going back 50 years and choking us," Ko said. "It's unacceptable. We should be an inspiration to the whole of China on the road to democracy, but we have a local government that is oppressive."
Activist Law Yuk-kai of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor predicted the law will discourage dissent and will eventually be used to silence critics.
"The problem is, the water's being heated up only gradually," Law said. "At one point, the frog will notice it's cooked."
Hoping to ease such fears, Ip on Tuesday announced changes to the legislation, making some crimes harder to prosecute — for example by imposing a three-year statute of limitations for any prosecution of publishing seditious materials.
The Tiananmen crackdown stirred massive protests in Hong Kong, fueling worries in Beijing that Hong Kong could develop as a "base for subversion."
Some people here say they remain deeply angry and want to see change in China.
"Someday we need to be the Palestinian people and fight," said truck driver Simon Mok.
When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, the same mini-constitution that guaranteed freedoms of speech, press and religion also required that Hong Kong outlaw subversion, treason, sedition and other crimes against the state.