Hong Kong vigil for Liu Xiaobo sends powerful message to Beijing

March is only large-scale commemoration for dissident in China, with Hong Kong maintaining freedoms non-existent elsewhere

Thousands of mourners marched through the heart of Hong Kong in a candlelight vigil for Chinese Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, sending a powerful message to Beijing as it tries to erase his legacy.

Liu died on Thursday at the age of 61, less than a month after he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and his ashes were scattered in the sea in a highly scripted ceremony tightly controlled by the Chinese government.

The Hong Kong rally is the only large-scale commemoration for Liu on Chinese soil. The semi-autonomous city maintains a wide range of freedoms that are non-existent in mainland China, and several newspapers in the city splashed Lius portrait on their front pages.

Besides mourning Liu, many called for the release of his wife Liu Xia, who despite never being accused of a crime has been kept under house arrest since her husband won the Nobel peace prize in 2010.

At the front of the march was Lee Cheuk-yan, a former lawmaker of 20 years, carrying a banner calling for Lius spirit to inspire people. The four white Chinese characters painted on a black cloth was a replica of a banner hoisted by student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, an event that Liu flew back to China to join.

Were here to tell [Chinese president] Xi Jinping that Hong Kong people will continue to fight in the spirit of Liu Xiaobo, Lee said. The way the funeral was controlled by the Communist party, its very sad to say that Liu Xiaobo cannot be free even in death. But now we must free Liu Xia, because she has already suffered so much.

In China, many do not even know Lius name, the result of a massive government censorship campaign that has scrubbed nearly all messages of support from Chinese websites and social media. Mass rallies are extremely rare, with police quick to break up even small gatherings.

The Beijing regime is so callous, they dont care what anyone thinks and their treatment of Liu Xiaobo proves that, said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker. We need to show Beijing and the rest of the world that Hong Kong people will not be silent in the face of injustice.

Beijing has this parental mentality, demanding obedience from Liu Xia: they tell her not to speak, not to go abroad, Mo added. But she must be set free.

The march saw mourners wind through downtown Hong Kong, bringing a district usually bustling with partygoers out on a Saturday evening to a near standstill. For many it was a family affair with parents bringing their young children.

Confused tourists from mainland China asked police what was the purpose of the march, and responded with blank stares after hearing Lius name.

Is he a bookstore owner? one man asked, probably referring to the abduction of five Hong Kong publishers in late 2015 by Chinese authorities.

But barely anyone recognised the old man marching alone in running shorts, sandals and a blue hat featuring a United Nations logo as Lam Wing-kee, one of the missing booksellers who skipped bail and went public with his account of months spent in police custody.

I was incredibly sad at the end of his death, but you cannot depend on one person to bring democracy to China, Lam said. Although a great icon has fallen, there will be 50 people ready to take his place.

Democracy in China isnt about one day, one event or one person, this view is too pessimistic, he added. Look at the long-term and you will see that it make take generations, but there will democracy.

The governments treatment of Liu is a troubling sign for many Hong Kong people agitating for greater democratic rights in the former British colony, and is a symbol of an authoritarian state unwilling to bend even with a dissident on his deathbed.

Its a huge contrast between Xi Jinping and Liu Xiaobo. Liu said I have no enemies, that he wanted to use love to conquer hate and all he wanted was democracy. The way Xi Jinping treated Liu Xiaobo is a lesson to how he will treat the more than seven million people in Hong Kong, Lee said. We need more of Liu Xiaobos spirit, his unceasing fight for democracy, here in Hong Kong.

The vigil ended at Beijings main presence in Hong Kong, an imposing skyscraper topped with a black glass sphere, where a makeshift memorial had been built. Black and white portraits of Liu were surrounded by white chrysanthemums, a symbol of mourning in Chinese culture.

Mourners signed their names in a memorial book and bowed three times, before being hastily moved along by police.

For Jennifer Lui, it was important to register her grief, hoping speak for those in China who did not have a voice.

The way the Chinese government treated him and the pain it inflicted on him and his family just for writing words and talking about democracy, all this proves he deserved the Nobel prize, said Lui, 27, a graduate student. His words, his actions are all about peace, but the Chinese government only knows how to be violent.

At several points heavy rains soaked the marchers, with some ducking under shop awnings for cover before continuing.

But Lui, a devout Christian, had a different view of Hong Kongs unpredictable weather: You see, God is crying for Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia.

Originally published at: http://www.theguardian.com/us