HONG KONG -- Thousands in Hong Kong held a candlelight vigil yesterday for ousted Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, who died this week in his 15th year under house arrest for sympathizing with the Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters.
The mourning of Zhao has been high-profile in this formerly British-ruled Chinese territory, which enjoys civil liberties denied on the mainland.
Many in Hong Kong who oppose Beijing's domination lionize the protesters who took part in the bloody 1989 demonstrations in the Chinese capital.
By contrast, the Chinese government has handled Zhao's death cautiously.
Holding candles, mourners in a downtown Hong Kong park bowed three times toward a portrait of Zhao in keeping with Chinese tradition and observed a minute of silence.
A makeshift tribute area for the reformist leader who died Monday in Beijing was inundated with wreaths.
''He's a hero of the Chinese people. We will always miss him," said teacher Ng Ping-lam, 56, in a trembling voice.
Organizers said 15,000 turned out for the vigil. Police spokesman Trish Leung put the crowd size at 10,000.
Zhao visited student demonstrators occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square in May 1989.
Weeks later Chinese troops cleared the square, killing hundreds, and Zhao was purged as Communist Party leader and put under house arrest.
Earlier this week, the government defended the Tiananmen Square crackdown, as well as the decision to oust Zhao on charges of ''splitting the party."
However, Beijing has agreed to hold a memorial for Zhao at its main cemetery for revolutionary heroes.
Many parents brought their young children to yesterday's vigil. ''I respect him a lot for standing up to fight for the students," said Chung Hau-yee, 40.
Her 11-year-old daughter, Soo Sin-yee, said: ''He opposed killing the students. He's a good leader."
''I am very sad that a person with such great moral courage has left us. We can only hope that we will have more leaders like him in China," said another participant, Simon Kan, 55, a law firm employee.
Many who attended the memorial called on China's government to bring to justice those responsible for the Tiananmen massacre.
Activists laid a wreath at the Chinese government's local offices and lawmakers observed a brief silence for Zhao on Wednesday despite a warning from China not to do so.
China's state media, meanwhile, gave the news scant coverage.
Police looked on as mourners filed into Zhao's Beijing home to pay respects.