By Casey Quackenbush / Hong Kong
Updated: June 4, 2016 10:18 PM ET

Tens of thousands of flickering candles lit up Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on Saturday night local time as people gathered to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

The vigil is held every year to memorialize the thousands of pro-democracy students who were brutally gunned down by Chinese soldiers on June 4, 1989. China has suppressed all mention of the massacre on the mainland, but Hong Kong’s unique status as a special administrative region governed under the “one country, two systems” principle exempts it from the communist government’s censorship. It is the only Tiananmen vigil permitted on Chinese soil, and the largest memorial of the massacre in the world.

Despite concerns of a lower turnout this year, organizers estimated 125,000 people attended. A somber minute’s silence was followed by eruptions of applause that echoed through the Causeway Bay cityscape as the crowd watched videos, eulogies, songs and speeches.

“We come here because of our conscience,” Y.K. Lau, a 50-year-old doctor, explains as he walks through Victoria Park under a yellow umbrella — a symbol of the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, known as the Umbrella Revolution. “By holding our candlelight, we send a signal to those being suppressed in China and warm their hearts.”

But Hong Kong’s fractured democracy movement has deeply politicized the event. “Build a democratic China” is one of the founding principles of the event organizer, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China — a heavily contested goal that has caused several student activist groups not only to resign from the alliance, but also to host alternative events that prioritize a democratic Hong Kong that is separate from mainland China. “We are against their vision that they want to be a democratic China,” says Althea Suen, president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union (HKUSU), the most recent group to splinter off.

Many democracy activists see Hong Kong as being culturally and linguistically distinct from mainland China and are fighting for greater democratic freedoms in the territory, with some hard-line localist groups even advocating independence.

“Some people don’t believe in this ceremony because they cannot see rapid progress. They want something to change immediately,” Alex, a 26-year-old-nurse who has attended the vigil for the past five years, told TIME above the music.

In a parallel event, the HKUSU organized a 90-minute academic forum at the University of Hong Kong, where several generations of Hong Kong academics were invited to discuss the future of the city. The intent was not to “boycott,” Suen emphasizes, but to channel the memory of those killed in the massacre and “look at these June 4 issues based on our Hong Kong identity.”

But the dozens of political groups clamoring over loudspeakers along Great George Street didn’t stop thousands from flocking to the park to commemorate the bloody crackdown. The message from Saturday’s vigil, which was attended by people of all ages, was first and foremost about unity. On stage, Professor Ivan Choy of the Chinese University of Hong Kong called on every young person in the crowd to stand. Throngs of students stood and cheered.

“It doesn’t matter if people join the assembly in Victoria Park or at the university, the most important thing is that we share a common goal,” says student activist Joshua Wong, who led the pro-democracy protests two years ago and is now secretary general of nascent political party Demosistō. “It’s that we will never forget the June 4 incident.”

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