Hong Kong on Monday prohibited for the first time the annual June 4 vigil to honor victims of the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which the Chinese government crushed with deadly force.
The prohibition order was issued by the Hong Kong police force, and came less than a week after the Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing moved to enact new security laws on the former British colony. The order cited the need to enforce social-distancing rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the justification for the ban.
The gathering to remember Tiananmen, held annually since 1990, had become a major rallying point for Hong Kongers worried about what they see as China’s rising repression. In the crackdown 31 years ago on the demonstrations in Tiananmen and other cities, Chinese soldiers killed hundreds, and possibly thousands, of protesters.
Fears about limits on free speech and political expression have intensified in the past few days, after Beijing defied an international outcry and announced that it would impose new national security restrictions on Hong Kong that could effectively criminalize anything deemed subversive.
Critics called the new restrictions a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle that guaranteed Hong Kong’s way of life for at least 50 years after Britain returned the territory to China in 1997. They also immediately raised conjecture that the Tiananmen vigil might be banned.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s brutal putting down of the Tiananmen protests remains one of modern China’s most politically delicate events. Commemorations of the protests are banned on the Chinese mainland. Party propagandists have attempted to erase references to the Tiananmen events from China’s history books.
President Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao, has expressed no remorse about the deadly repression of students who had been camped on central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. He also has expressed increased frustration at Hong Kong’s democracy movement, seeing it as a threat to Communist Party control.
Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigil organizers said they still planned to go to Victoria Park, where the event had been regularly held, even though they expected the police to disperse any gathering. They have asked supporters in Hong Kong and around the world to light candles in their homes or other private places and post the images online.
The organizing body, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, also planned to set up booths around the city to observe the event, said Lee Cheuk-yan, the group’s chairman. A handful of churches intended to hold special services, he said.
“This is one of the characteristics of Hong Kong. We all came out to support democracy in China in 1989,” Mr. Lee said. “We have continued for 30 years, and people are really shocked that we can be persistent.”
Hong Kong has been widely praised for its success in controlling the spread of the virus. The city, with 7.5 million people, has recorded 1,085 cases and four deaths.
But protesters have accused the police of enforcing the social-distancing rules against government critics while ignoring gatherings by establishment supporters or large crowds in bar districts.