Today marks one of the most shameful days in China’s history, but a bizarre act this week shows Beijing will no longer tolerate it.
There will be an eerie silence at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park tonight, where tens of thousands of protesters usually gather each year to remember those who were killed in one of the most shameful events in China’s history — the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Just two years ago, 180,000 people attended the annual vigil remembering the 1989 bloodbath that shocked the world.
But anyone who dares show their face at the site today will face up to five years in prison.
Even talking about the event could lead to one year in jail under Hong Kong’s harsh National Security law — brought in last year despite massive pro-democracy protests.
It all has nothing to do with Covid-19 either. The city has managed the pandemic well, there have been no cases in over a month and social distancing rules have been eased.
Instead of the traditional scenes of Hong Kongers coming together and holding candles to remember those who died 32 years ago, there will be a brute show force.
Thousands of police will stand at Victoria Park in a show of force that makes it clear that China will no longer tolerate discussion of the massacre.
In a sign of just how seriously it is taking this year’s protests, police in Hong Kong made a bizarre arrest of an activist known as “Grandma Wong” over the weekend.
The 65-year-old’s alleged crime was holding an “unauthorised assembly” — even though she was sat alone on the footpath carrying a yellow umbrella and a homemade cardboard sign.
Another nearby protester was fined for handing out electric candles and matchboxes marked “never surrender” to mark the event.
In Macau, police also banned the vigil for the second time. Last year authorities blamed covid. But this year, they are claiming the event’s purpose and slogans would violate local criminal laws, including inciting subversion and defamation.
Discussion about the infamous massacre of largely unarmed protesters on June 4, 1989 — particularly Beijing’s decision to use tanks and troops against them — is all but forbidden on the mainland.
The massacre was precipitated by the peaceful gatherings of students, workers, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other Chinese cities in April 1989.
They were calling for freedom of expression, accountability, and an end to corruption.
The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law.
On June 3 and 4, the military opened fire and killed untold numbers of peaceful protesters and bystanders. In Beijing, some citizens attacked army convoys and burned vehicles in response to the military’s violence.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since forbidden discussion of the massacre and has taken extreme measures to block or censor information related to it.
Simply put, the words Tiananmen Square must not be said in China. Internet searches made within the nation return censored results. Any published articles must be consistent with the government’s version of events.
says the CCP has never accepted responsibility for the massacre or held any officials legally accountable for the killings.
It has been unwilling to conduct an investigation into the events or release data on those who were killed, injured, forcibly disappeared, or imprisoned.
In the extraordinary piece published by the CCP mouthpiece Global Times, the daily Chinese tabloid newspaper last year referred to the “Tiananmen Square incident” as a “vaccination”.
The paper said the government’s decision in 1989 had ended “disputes” in the country and helped “all the Chinese people face the future”.
However, the latest crackdown in Hong Kong is concerning on another level, according to human rights groups.
That’s because Hong Kong has traditionally been one of the only places in China where large-scale commemorations were still allowed.
For more than three decades, huge crowds have gathered in Victoria Park to hold an emotional candlelight vigil to remember those killed and to call on China to embrace democracy.
Now that looks to be coming to an end.
Authorities banned this year’s gathering citing the coronavirus pandemic — although Hong Kong has not recorded an untraceable local transmission in more than a month.
Police say that thousands of officers will be on standby to halt any “unlawful assemblies” while officials have also warned that a sweeping new national security law could be wielded against Tiananmen mourners.
“The ban on Hong Kong’s candlelight vigil speaks volumes about the Chinese government’s human rights record: that 32 years after the Tiananmen Massacre, they have only deepened repression,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But suppressing the truth has only fuelled demands for justice and accountability.”
While last year’s vigil was also denied permission because of the pandemic, thousands simply defied the ban.
But much has changed in Hong Kong over the last year as authorities seek to snuff out the city’s pro-democracy movement using the security law to criminalise much dissent.
Most of the city’s most prominent democracy figures — many of whom would organise and attend the annual Tiananmen vigils — are in jail, have been arrested or have fled overseas.
Protesters forced to remember in private
The threat of mass arrests has forced those who would normally attend the vigil to think creatively.
Activists have called on residents to light candles in their own homes or neighbourhoods come Friday evening, or post commemoration messages on social media.
One campaign has called for Hong Kongers to write the numbers 6 and 4 — representing June 4 — on light switches at home.
“A regime can ban an assembly but it can never ban the indelible grievances in people’s hearts,” Lee Cheuk-yan, a now jailed democracy activist, wrote in a message published on his Facebook page on Thursday.
“I hope everyone can find your own way to light a candle by the window, on the road, wherever that can be seen by others, to continue our mourning,” he added.
Much like the initial generation of Tiananmen survivors who fled abroad three decades ago, many Hong Kong democracy figures have chosen self-exile and plan to lead their own commemorations overseas.
Vigils are planned in cities like Tokyo, Sydney, Taipei, London, Berlin and Washington.
“I hope everyone can all pass on the history and truth of the June 4 massacre and the democratic movement in 1989 to the next generation by safe means,” Nathan Law, a former student leader who fled to Britain last year, wrote on Facebook.
In mainland China, the Tiananmen anniversary is usually marked with a dramatic increase in online censorship and the square in Beijing being cordoned off.
Hong Kong’s harsh security law
Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong just a few weeks after last year’s rally in response to 2019’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.
It has transformed the city’s once freewheeling political landscape. More than 100 pro-democracy figures have been arrested under the new law, mostly for political views and speech.
Most are denied bail and face up to life in prison if convicted. Pro-Beijing politicians have suggested that calls to “End one party rule” and “Bring democracy to China” — both common chants at Tiananmen vigils — could now be deemed subversion, one of the national security crimes in the broadly worded law.
The security legislation has been combined with a new campaign dubbed “Patriots rule Hong Kong” aimed at purging anyone perceived to be disloyal from public office.
China says the measures have restored stability.
Critics, including many western governments, say the crackdown has shredded Beijing’s promise that Hong Kong could maintain key freedoms after its 1997 handover from Britain to China.
– with AFP