HONG KONG — Activists said they would gather Thursday for an annual vigil to remember the victims of the Chinese military’s crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 despite a first-ever police ban of the event.
Hong Kong, which has far greater civil liberties than mainland China, has always been the most important site for public commemoration of the June 4 massacre — and the only large-scale one on Chinese soil. But democracy advocates fear the space for speech that is critical of Beijing will shrink further as China’s ruling Communist Party tightens its control over the semiautonomous city after a year of pro-democracy protests.
Beijing declared last week that it would impose a new national security law on Hong Kong. The law, which would take aim at antigovernment protests and other dissent, calls into question the future of organizations and events that challenge the party’s rule. On Thursday, lawmakers in Hong Kong approved a law that would criminalize disrespect of China’s national anthem and make it punishable by up to three years in prison.
The Tiananmen vigil, often a sea of candlelit faces against the backdrop of the city’s dense buildings, has offered the rare opportunity in Chinese territory to remember the hundreds and possibly thousands of people who were killed by troops in Beijing and other cities in the summer of 1989. In mainland China, any discussion of the anniversary is quickly scrubbed by censors, while the authorities harass relatives of those killed and block any formal memorials.
Earlier this week, the city police banned the vigil, which is usually held in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island, on the grounds that it would risk spreading the coronavirus. Public gatherings of more than eight people have been barred in the city, a ban that was extended this week.
Organizers said they believed political motives were behind the move to block the vigil. The police have cited social-distancing regulations to limit pro-democracy protests in recent months.
Where we left off
In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.
Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.
How it’s different this time
Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.
What’s happening now
This latest round of demonstrations in Hong Kong has been fueled largely by China’s ruling Communist Party move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.
To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
Updated May 27, 2020
The vigil organizers have asked those who want to mark the anniversary of the crackdown to light candles on their own or at booths set up around the city and post the images online.
In addition, seven Catholic churches in Hong Kong planned to hold masses on Thursday with a moment of silent prayer and lighting of candles for those killed in 1989. Social-distancing limits on churches are looser, allowing congregants to fill up to half the maximum capacity to attend services.
Members of the group that hosts the annual vigil, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said they believed it was important to gather in Victoria Park despite the risk of fines or arrest.
“It will be the last candlelight vigil before the national security act,” Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the alliance, said in explaining why he planned to still go to the park. “Next year will be even more dangerous. Next year they can use the national security act against the people of Hong Kong.”
Each June 4 evening, the hard-surface soccer fields of Victoria Park have served not only as a place to memorialize the dead but a history classroom for the young and a canvasing site for local pro-democracy groups. It has also acted as a gauge of whether the city can maintain the political freedoms that have become part of its identity, guaranteed by a policy known as “one country, two systems” in place since the city was returned to Chinese control in 1997.
“It’s a sort of symbol of whether, under Communist Party rule, ‘one country, two systems’ can work, of whether we can have this condemnation of the massacre continuously carried forward after ’97,” Mr. Lee said.
At the vigils, local religious leaders and pro-democracy political figures usually speak along with veterans of the Tiananmen protests and the parents of those who were killed.
The ban of the vigil this year added to the drumbeat of concerns that Beijing’s demands for security and stability would continue to erode Hong Kong’s civil liberties. In recent months, the police have taken an increasingly tough approach to the protest movement that began last year over a plan, since dropped, to allow extraditions to mainland China. Now officers move quickly to pre-empt the protests by making arrests and stopping people from joining unauthorized assemblies.
Beijing is now drafting the new national security laws, which will target subversion, secession and terrorism. While the details are still unclear, many in the pro-democracy camp fear they will be used to target dissent and criticism of the Communist Party.
Skyler Wong, a 24-year-old environmental educator, said she first attended the vigil by herself at age 15 after a teacher showed video clips of the crackdown in class. The vigil was the first political event she had attended, and she says it prompted her political awakening.
“I was very moved,” she said. “I grew up thinking Hong Kongers were very apathetic. I never thought that there would be so many in Hong Kong who would take a stand over their conscience.”
Ms. Wong said she planned to attend a smaller open-air discussion and light candles in her community to commemorate the event.
Attendance at past vigils has risen and fallen from year to year, often in line with broader public sentiment toward China’s central government. Younger activists, who have increasingly rejected ties to mainland China and asserted a separate and distinct identity, have organized alternative commemorations, saying the calls for a democratic China were disconnected from Hong Kong’s own political struggles.
Han Dongfang, a Tiananmen protest leader who spent almost two years in prison after the crackdown, has regularly attended the vigils since he was expelled to Hong Kong in 1993. He said he, too, would go to Victoria Park with his children, despite the police restrictions.
“I don’t mind if other people don’t go, if it is not an official event or demonstration or protest,” said Mr. Han, who runs a workers’ rights organization, the China Labor Bulletin. “To me it’s a symbolic place and a symbolic day to commemorate this for my children. I want them to know.”
As President Trump has pushed for the use of armed forces in the United States to quell the unrest that has followed the killing of a black man by the police in Minnesota, Mr. Han said governments should resist that option.
“The military should never be used to answer protests, not under a dictatorship or in a democracy,” he said.
In the semiautonomous region of Macau, the only other place in China where Tiananmen is publicly commemorated, the authorities revoked permission last month for an annual photo exhibition of the crackdown. Democracy advocates there said they suspected that the move, which was described as part of a standardization of the use of public spaces, was an effort to clamp down on dissent.
Like Hong Kong, Macau operates as a part of China but with its own local system. In practice, it is far more politically constrained than Hong Kong.
Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Javier C. Hernández from Taipei, Taiwan.