For the second year in a row, on the grounds of fighting COVID-19, the police had banned the annual vigil in Hong Kong to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. For the second year in a row, Hong Kongers did their best to celebrate it in their 32 anniversary and prevent those deaths from falling into oblivion.
Groups of people, many young people, many dressed in black went to the surroundings of Victoria Park, the usual place of the ceremony and this Friday tightly cordoned off by the Police. They carried candles, or the mobile light on as they walked around the park. Some, the most daring, chanted in the nearby shopping streets of Causeway Bay some slogan of the 2019 demonstrations (“Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Era”). In response, the Police warned, using purple flags, that the dreaded National Security Law was being violated.
The scene was repeated in other areas of Hong Kong. In the militant Mong Kok, a working-class neighborhood across the bay, at least one activist was arrested. According to the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, a group had chanted slogans such as “Hong Kong Independence, the only way” and insults to the Police. In other areas, small groups dressed in black also held their mobile flashlights aloft; little lights were visible in the windows. In seven Catholic churches, both believers and unbaptized gathered to pray for the victims.
Chow Hang-tung, 37, deputy director of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, the association that has organized the vigil each year, had been arrested in the morning. The local police chief, Law Kwok-koi, confirmed the arrest of the lawyer and a 20-year-old man for “posting comments on social media that implied promoting and calling on others to participate in prohibited public activities.” Chow had posted on social media that this Friday he would light a candle “where everyone can see it.”
“A regime can prohibit a meeting, but it cannot prohibit the pain in people’s hearts,” Lee Cheuk-yan, another of the regular organizers of the vigil, had written this week on his Facebook wall. Lee, 64, is in jail, among other charges, for having participated in last year’s commemoration. “I hope everyone finds a way to light a candle in the window, in the street, where it can be seen by others,” he added.
Hours before dusk, the time when the vigil had been held in other years, the Hong Kong Police kept most of the park cordoned off, the largest in the center of the city. About 7,000 troops had been mobilized to “dissuade groups from meeting” and to break up possible illegal concentrations. The surroundings of Victoria were full of agents, both in uniform and plain clothes.
The Police justified the strong security measures by ensuring that there had been calls on social networks for people to go to the park despite the ban. In a statement, they had warned that those who jumped the barriers to enter the compound would face up to 12 months in prison and if they participated in some type of unauthorized rally or march, up to five years in prison.
For three decades, the Hong Kong vigil was the only one held on Chinese territory to commemorate the victims of the massacre on that early morning of June 3-4, 1989, when by order of the Government, Chinese troops opened fire on the population to dissolve the protests that had been occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing for a month to demand reforms and democracy. In the rest of the country, the government systematically censors any information on the matter. An official list of victims has never been published, there were hundreds. This Friday, the spokesman for Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, limited himself in his daily press conference to repeating that what happened in Tiananmen is an “internal matter.”
Last year the commemoration was banned for the first time in the enclave. Then, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers ignored the veto to enter the park and hold the vigil, while the police refrained from intervening. It was the last major mobilization in defiance of Beijing that has been experienced on Hong Kong soil. Days later, the National Security law imposed from the capital came into force, a norm that punishes with life imprisonment the crimes of “independence”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “conspiring with foreign forces.”
Since then, the panorama of the freedoms that the enclave is guaranteed until 2049, according to the agreements between China and the United Kingdom for the return of the former British colony to Chinese sovereignty, has seriously deteriorated. Like Lee, dozens of leading opposition politicians and activists are in jail for their participation in the 2019 protests, last year’s vigil, or charges related to the National Security law. The Alliance organizing the vigil is under suspicion, with the argument made by politicians close to Beijing that its slogan “End the Dictatorship of the One Party” violates that draconian law.
In a statement, Yaqiu Wang, researcher for China at the NGO Human Rights Watch, denounced this Friday that “the prohibition of the Hong Kong vigil says it all about the human rights record of the Chinese government: that 32 years after the massacre from Tiananmen, they have only increased the repression ”. “But suppressing the truth has only fueled demands for justice and accountability,” he argues.