Hong Kong erases memories of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre

The atmosphere will be both daring and gloomy. Speakers would have demanded that the Chinese Communist Party be responsible for the bloody military crackdown that cost the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed democratic demonstrators on that fateful day in Beijing.

In memory of the dead, each year at 8 p.m., the park was transformed into a sea of ​​candles held high by people who swore never to forget.

Whether these candles are lit again this year will be a litmus test for Hong Kong, its freedoms and aspirations, and its relationship with both the rest of China and the world.

Mainland Chinese authorities have always gone to great lengths to erase all memory of the massacre: censoring news reports, deleting all references from the Internet, arresting and exiling protest organizers, and keeping relatives of the dead under tight surveillance. . As a result, generations of mainland Chinese have grown up ignorant of the events of June 4th.

But Hong Kong has always had the ability to remember. In the first years after the massacre, Hong Kong was still a British colony, inaccessible to Chinese censors. And even after Britain handed over sovereignty to China in 1997, the city enjoyed a semi-autonomous status that allowed the vigil to continue.

Recently, however, the candles in Victoria Park went out. Authorities banned the vigil in 2020 and 2021, citing coronavirus health restrictions, though many Hong Kongers believe it was just a pretext to quell public dissent following the pro-democracy protests that swept the city in 2019.

In 2020, despite the lack of an organized vigil, thousands of Hong Kongers still went to the park in defiance of the authorities. But last year, the government deployed more than 3,000 riot police to prevent unsanctioned gatherings, and the park remained in darkness for the first time in more than three decades.

Now that Hong Kong is easing many of the Covid restrictions, all eyes will be on this year’s “six-four” – as the locals call the date – a barometer not only of the political atmosphere, but of Hong Kongers’ appetite for defiance and defiance. government tolerance for dissent.

Litmus test

For supporters of the vigil, the first signs are unfavorable.

Critics say Hong Kong has taken an authoritarian turn since its own pro-democracy protests began. Indeed, its next leader, just a few weeks after coming to power, was John Lee, who became famous as the head of security who helped quell these protests.

Many critics say the Hong Kong government would be gullible if it banned the event again due to Covid. However, that seems to be exactly what outgoing CEO Carrie Lam suggested. At the end of May, Lam gave an ambiguous answer to the question of whether people who gathered in Victoria Park on June 4 would face legal consequences.

“As for any gathering, there are a lot of legal requirements,” Lam told reporters. “There is a national security law, there are restrictions on social distancing, and there is also the question of the venue… it is up to the owner of the venue to decide whether a particular event has received permission to take place in a particular venue. .”

Highlighting the government’s opposition to the picketing, Hong Kong police said on Thursday that they spotted people “promoting, advocating and inciting others to participate in unsanctioned gatherings in the Victoria Park area” on June 4 and advised the public not to attend.

Police cited Covid measures and the public order ordinance and warned that those who advertise or organize illegal gatherings could be prosecuted and jailed. There will be “sufficient numbers” of police in the area, Chief Superintendent Lauv Ka Kae said, adding that the police have not received any applications for public memorials.

Pro-democracy demonstrators surround a truck full of Chinese soldiers on their way to Tiananmen Square on May 20, 1989.

Asked if people could be arrested for wearing flowers or wearing black, the color of the protest in Hong Kong, Liauw said those who appeared to be inciting others to join illegal gatherings would be stopped and searched, and repeated claims of illegal gathering punishable by a maximum of five years. a prison term, and perpetrators of incitement can receive up to 12 months.

Police will also crack down on online incitement to gather, Liau said.

Whether residents will dare to defy the government and show up in Victoria Park anyway remains to be seen, but the national security law Lam cites is a powerful deterrent. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong raised concerns about the law when it recently announced that for the first time in three decades, its churches would not hold their annual mass in Tiananmen Square.

The National Security Law is a sweeping piece of legislation that was introduced in Hong Kong by China’s central government and went into effect at the end of June 2020 – just weeks after Hong Kongers violated the 2020 vigil ban.

Central and local governments said the law was needed to restore order to the city after pro-democracy protests, which they claimed were fueled by foreign elements. It prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces; the authorities continue to insist that this does not infringe on freedom of the press or speech.

“With the implementation of the national security law, chaos has ended in Hong Kong and order has been restored,” the Hong Kong government said on May 20.

People hold candles during a vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2018.

However, many Hong Kongers say the law has dashed their dreams of a freer, more democratic city.

Since the law came into force, pro-democracy activists, former elected deputies and journalists have been arrested. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have fled the city, some fleeing persecution and seeking asylum abroad.

Tiananmen Square picket organizers disbanded, some of them imprisoned. Among their alleged misdeeds are acting as “foreign agents” and calling on people to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre.

Fates intertwined

The fates of Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong have long been intertwined.

Even before the massacre, when student protests in Beijing used the square as a base to promote government reform and greater democracy, Hong Kong residents held rallies in solidarity. Many would even travel to the Chinese capital to offer support.

And when Beijing decided to send People’s Liberation Army troops, armed with rifles and escorted by tanks, to forcibly clear one of these protests, which drew tens of thousands of students, in the early morning of June 4, 1989, Hong Kongers were among the first to offer support.

There are no official figures on how many of the mostly student protesters were killed that day, but estimates range from a few hundred to thousands, and many more were injured. It has also been estimated that up to 10,000 people were arrested during and after the protests. Several dozen protesters were executed.

A lone man with bags temporarily stops the advance of Chinese tanks after a bloody crackdown on protesters in Beijing, June 5, 1989.

Of those who escaped, about 500 were rescued by an underground network dubbed “Operation Yellow Bird”, which helped transport the organizers and others at risk of arrest to Hong Kong, which was still British territory at the time.

The following year, the Hong Kong Alliance for China’s Patriotic Democratic Movements began organizing annual pickets in Victoria Park, and despite fears that Beijing might suppress the event after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, a new incarnation as a special administrative region of China.

The all-night vigil was last held in 2019, with over 180,000 people attending, according to organizers.

Memory loss

Since that last vigil, there have been many symbolic erasures of the city’s ability to publicly remember, protest, and mourn the massacre.

In September 2021, the Hong Kong Alliance – the organizer of the vigil – decided to disband, citing the national security law.

Several of its members have been charged with subversive activities under the security law, and some of its key figures, including former lawmakers, have been sentenced to prison on charges of unsanctioned assembly.

Thousands of Hong Kongers gathered in the city's Victoria Park to mark the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 2020.

Announcing the dissolution of the group, Richard Choi, former vice chairman of the alliance, said: “I believe that the people of Hong Kong – regardless of personal or other qualities – will continue to celebrate June 4, as before.”

However, since Choi spoke, more reminders of what happened on June 4, 1989 have slipped out of sight.

Last December, the University of Hong Kong removed its Pillar of Shame, an iconic sculpture commemorating the victims of Tiananmen Square that had stood on its campus for more than 20 years. Several other local universities also removed the memorials.
Two children look at the
In April, a controversial Tiananmen Square painting was among several political works removed from Hong Kong’s main new art museum, M+, though the institution said the removal was part of a normal “rotation” of exhibited art.
And the Catholic diocese’s decision not to commemorate the date comes just weeks after Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, one of Asia’s most senior Catholic clerics and an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was arrested along with three other pro-democracy activists.

However, there are those who say that they will continue to speak out in every possible way to keep the memory of Tiananmen Square alive.

Following the arrest last year of former Hong Kong Alliance leader Chow Hang-tung, she made a passionate defense in court, denouncing what she said was “one step in the systemic erasure of history, both of the Tiananmen Square massacre and of the civil war’s own history.” war in Hong Kong. resistance.”

Even as the court prepared to hand down a 15-month sentence, she remained defiant. “No matter what the fine is, I will continue to say what I have to,” she said in comments posted online in January of this year.

“Even if lighting candles becomes a criminal offense, I will still encourage people to come forward, whether it be on June 4 this year or every June 4 in subsequent years.”

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