The Chinese Communist party is poised to extinguish the last public event on Beijing-controlled territory commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre — a goal that has eluded it for more than three decades.
The annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong typically attracts tens of thousands of people to remember those who died in Beijing on June 4 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army crushed protests by pro-democracy demonstrators and their supporters in the Chinese capital.
While last year’s vigil was banned by Hong Kong police on public health grounds as the territory battled the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of people still converged to light candles as police looked on.
This year’s gathering, which would have been held on Friday, has also been banned because of the pandemic. But activists believe Hong Kongers will be less likely to engage in another act of mass defiance after the imposition of a National Security Law last year that contains harsh penalties for subversion and other crimes against the state.
The vigil, held since 1990, is seen as highly symbolic of Hong Kong’s freedoms, showcasing the city’s spirit of independence to the rest of the world. It had become one of the most important annual events for pro-democracy groups, with families attending to light candles and sing songs.
Many believe the security law will make it impossible to hold any future memorials even after the pandemic has receded.
“With this step, Hong Kong is moving closer to being just another Chinese city,” said Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College in California. “This year, they can hide behind the pandemic. Next year, they will use another excuse.”
A mainland academic who advises Beijing on Hong Kong policy issues said the Chinese government could no longer tolerate the vigil.
“The assembly has a political purpose and contradicts the National Security Law, which prohibits subversion of state power,” the person said. “It is not a simple get-together.”
He said China had to be on alert in case the assembly led to “political turmoil”.
Dozens of activists and some of those who took part in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong two years ago — as well as last year’s banned vigil — are in jail for participating in or organising unauthorised protests. Many of them are also awaiting trial for alleged violations of the National Security Law, which carry penalties of up to life in prison.
A recent bail application by Claudia Mo, one of 47 defendants in a mass subversion trial, was rejected after prosecutors pointed to interviews she had given to western media. The prosecution cited WhatsApp messages and television interviews in which she said the National Security Law had cast a “political chill” over the territory.
Many Hong Kong residents will nonetheless mark this year’s 32nd anniversary of Tiananmen by lighting candles in private.
Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran pro-democracy activist and vigil organiser imprisoned over his role in the 2019 protests, told friends he would send smoke signals with a lit cigarette from his jail cell.
“June 4 symbolises Hong Kong’s freedom,” said Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the vigil. “Nowadays the risk of any sort of political participation is very high, [the authorities] are controlling people with fear.”
But she added that “the power accumulated for 32 years inside each and every person isn’t that easy to step on”.
Chow said the government was still using the pandemic as an excuse, rather than banning the commemoration on national security grounds, because “the backlash would be huge”.
Richard Tsoi, another member of the alliance, argued that while this year’s memorials “might be less visible, we can preserve our strength and [hopefully] have the ability to mourn it in the future”.
Willy Lam, a China expert from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he expected a handful of mourners to show up, though the government’s “tough tactics” and threats of incarceration were likely to dissuade most from attending.
Many pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong argue that the goals of the alliance, which advocates “the end of one-party dictatorship” in China, contravene the National Security Law.
“I disagree with people making use of this event to promote a subversive agenda,” said Ronny Tong, an adviser to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Regina Ip, another pro-Beijing politician, said the event was being used as a “big stick to clobber China”.
Others in Hong Kong’s establishment, however, fear Lam’s administration has gone too far in its attempts to satisfy Beijing.
A broader effort is under way to revise how Hong Kong and Chinese history is taught in the territory. School curriculums are being rewritten and a local museum about June 4 was temporarily shut on Wednesday night after officials accused it of violating local laws.
“It’s getting worse,” said a veteran member of the territory’s pro-Beijing political camp who feels the crackdown has been excessive. “Beijing cannot tolerate even one dissident voice.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing