A Hong Kong park that traditionally hosts huge vigils on the anniversary of China’s deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown lay empty for the first time late Friday as police blocked access, but flashes of defiance still flickered across the city.
Huge crowds have routinely gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to mark the anniversary of Chinese troops crushing peaceful democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Hundreds were killed in the crackdown, by some estimates more than 1,000.
Public commemorations are forbidden on the mainland and, until recently, semi-autonomous Hong Kong was the one place in China where large scale remembrance was still tolerated.
This year’s vigil was banned at a time when authorities are carrying out a sweeping clampdown on dissent following huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago.
Police threw cordons around the Victoria Park, keeping crowds out and leaving the venue free of candle carrying mourners for the first time in 32 years.
Activists who approached the park were stopped and searched, while officers used loud hailers and signs to call for people to disperse from nearby streets.
Some officers displayed signs warning chanting crowds that they were in breach of a sweeping new national security law Beijing imposed on the city last year to stamp out dissent.
Early on Friday, police arrested Chow Hang Tung, vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, for promoting an unauthorised assembly. Hours later, officers cordoned off most of the downtown park.
“She only wanted to go to Victoria Park, light a candle and commemorate,” Chiu Yan Loy, executive member of the Alliance, told Reuters, adding he believed her arrest was meant to strike fear into those planning to attend the vigil.
Police, which banned the vigil for a second year in a row, citing the coronavirus, said there were still social media calls for people to rally despite the ban and warned of more arrests.
“From the bottom of my heart, I must say I believe Hong Kong is still a very safe and free city,” senior superintendent Liauw Ka-kei told reporters, adding that police had no option but to enforce the law.
Before her arrest, Ms Chow told Reuters this week that 4 June was a test for Hong Kong “of whether we can defend our bottom line of morality”.
“As long as they haven’t said candles are illegal, we will light a candle,” she said.
Her Facebook page said Ms Chow will mark the anniversary by fasting if she is unable to light a candle due to her arrest.
The Alliance’s chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan, is in jail over an illegal assembly.
‘Light a cigarette’
Police did not say whether commemorating Tiananmen would breach a sweeping national security law China imposed in 2020 to bring its most restive city onto an authoritarian path.
City leader Carrie Lam has only said that citizens must respect the law, as well as the Communist Party, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. 4 June commemorations are banned in mainland China.
Last year, thousands in Hong Kong defied the ban, gathering in the park and lining up on sidewalks with candles across the city, in what was largely a solemn event, bar a brief scuffle with police in one district.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong received a 10-month prison sentence last month for participating in last year’s vigil, while three others got four-to-six-month sentences. Twenty more are due in court on 11 June on similar charges.
“It is a battle against oblivion,” exiled activist Sunny Cheung told Reuters by text.
Many plan to light candles again in their neighbourhood, if safe to do so. Activists online called for people to turn on the lights in their homes at 8pm. Some churches will be open for prayers.
Students at Hong Kong University performed the annual ritual of cleaning the Pillar of Shame statue in the campus, an eight-metre-tall monument commemorating Tiananmen.
“We want to defend the historical truth,” student union president Charles Kwok said.
Jailed activist Jimmy Sham said via his Facebook page he planned to “light a cigarette at 8pm”.
“We do not see the hope of democracy and freedom in a leader, a group, or a ceremony. Every one of us is the hope of democracy and freedom.”
China has never provided a full account of the 1989 violence. The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have perished.