The candle appeared more threatening than the sword to the Hong Kong authorities on Friday as they moved mountains to prevent people from gathering to remember a bloody chapter of modern Chinese history.
For 31 years, tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong had joined a candlelight vigil in a downtown park to mourn those killed in the Chinese government’s military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing on June 4, 1989.
Year after year, a sea of flickering candle flame had set the city apart from the rest of China as the semi-autonomous territory’s citizens exercised their freedom of assembly to openly condemn Beijing and call for democracy.
But this year, for the first time ever, no large-scale public commemoration took place on Chinese soil on the anniversary of the bloodshed as Hong Kong police mounted citywide operations to thwart gatherings.
The ban on the peaceful demonstration symbolizes the rapidly shrinking space for dissent in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that it would enjoy a range of civil liberties unavailable in mainland China.
While people in mainland China are banned from discussing the Tiananmen Square crackdown in public, Hong Kongers have been able to preserve the memories in books, exhibitions, and on the internet.
But Beijing has launched a sweeping crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy lawmakers and activists after the anti-government unrest in 2019, imposing a national security law and rounding up the bulk of opposition leaders, raising fears that the room for free speech and demonstrations would further diminish.
On Friday, the pro-Beijing local government deployed 7,000 officers, or a quarter of the entire police force, set up roadblocks at major junctions, and sealed off Victoria Park, the site of the annual vigil. Earlier in the day, police arrested two people for allegedly promoting the banned event.
Police even inspected the bags and identity cards of hikers atop Lion’s Rock, a mountain where activists had previously hung pro-democracy banners, Apple Daily reported.
In the evening, pedestrians dressed in black near Victoria Park were stopped and searched, although that didn’t deter some from approaching the area.
“Now the police are completely in charge. I can be punished for what I’m saying now.”
“If we don’t come out now, there won’t be any more chances,” said Deep Leung, a retired editor who was holding an electronic candle. “Now the police are completely in charge. I can be punished for what I’m saying now.”
The heavy police presence was “ridiculous,” said Sue Kam, an insurance worker in her 20s.
She came to take a walk near Victoria Park wearing a black T-shirt and a black mask. She said today’s Hong Kongers and the 1989 protesters share the experience of having their voices suppressed by the government.
“I choose to pretend they are not here,” she said of the police. “I won’t be scared of them. I can still choose what color I wear.”
Until this year, turnout at the annual Victoria Park vigil had been seen as a barometer of how Hong Kongers feel about the central government in Beijing. The crowd size had ebbed and flowed—and not always growing with the city’s increasingly vocal desire for greater democracy.
After the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, attendance at the annual Victoria Park vigil dropped, along with a rising local identity among the young generation.
Some young pro-democracy activists argued then that Hong Kong people, a group with its own culture, language, and history, have no responsibility to “build a democratic China,” a slogan chanted at the mass vigil every year.
But this year, following months of Beijing’s intensifying crackdown on dissent in the city, some of those who shunned the vigil in the past had gravitated back toward the event.
Antony, a 28-year-old designer, said he stopped going to the vigil a few years ago, believing that what happened in Beijing 32 years ago had little to do with Hong Kong. But following the 2019 protest movement in the city, he found new meanings in the commemoration.
“We are in the same position as the university students back then, since we have all fought against tyranny,” said Antony, who attended a mass dedicated to Tiananmen Square victims at a Catholic church on Friday. He declined to provide his full name for fear of being punished.
“Hong Kong has lost many aspects of free speech in the past year, and the June 4 vigil is only one of them. We must hold on to our own values.”
Elsewhere in Hong Kong, scattered groups of residents lit candles on the streets and walked around with their smartphone’s flashlights turned on in small acts of remembrance and defiance.
Police banned the June 4 vigil for the first time in 2020, citing coronavirus restrictions. Although a defiant crowd eventually entered Victoria Park, several protest leaders, including Joshua Wong, were later jailed for participating in the unauthorized gathering.
This year, police again banned the vigil, citing public safety and COVID-19 contagion concerns, and warned those who violated the ban would face five years in jail. Critics say the decision was politically charged, since Hong Kong had not recorded any local infection for two weeks and other public events like flower fairs and music concerts were permitted.
On the morning of June 4, police arrested two people, including the vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organizer of the annual vigil, on suspicion of promoting the banned gathering.
“Light on everywhere,” the 36-year-old activist and barrister, Chow Hang Tung, wrote on her Facebook page a day before the arrest. Now in custody and unable to light a candle, Chow said she would fast for a day in protest, her lawyer said.
“The more they want to ban it, the more we need to speak up.”
Back in Causeway Bay, a university student who moved to Hong Kong from mainland China in 2019 said it was the first time she commemorated the Tiananmen Square crackdown in public.
“I expected Hong Kong to be freer than the mainland, but the shadow of authoritarian rule seems to be following me here,” she said on condition of anonymity. “But the more they want to ban it, the more we need to speak up.”
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