For three decades after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, thousands of Hong Kong residents turned up in a park yearly to commemorate those killed in the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing. The topic is taboo in mainland China, but an annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s biggest park was a reminder of the degree of freedom that set the former British colony apart from other Chinese cities.
But on the 33rd anniversary of the repression, the Hong Kong police’s forceful response to acts of remembering the bloodshed was a symbol of how far this distinction has now been blurred.
On Saturday, the city deployed legions of cops and sealed off Victoria Park, where the vigil was held every year, just to prevent residents from lighting a single candle.
“They have essentially adopted mainland China’s approach, thinking that by censoring all voices of dissent, they can create an illusion that the society is peaceful and stable,” Eric Lai Yan-ho, a fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told VICE World News.
“But this method doesn’t work in Hong Kong. The more they try to ban any commemoration, the more they remind people of its significance and highlight the contrast with the past three decades, where people were allowed to freely and legally pay tribute to the victims.”
Six people were arrested near the park on Saturday, including veteran activist Lau Shan-ching, who was accused of inciting others to join an unauthorized assembly for wearing a shirt that featured a portrait of the late Chinese pro-democracy activist Li Wangyang and a mask that read “mourn June 4,” the date of the 1989 crackdown in central Beijing.
The Hong Kong police’s attempts to prevent public commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre followed earlier efforts to erase symbols of the event after China imposed a powerful new national security law on the semi-autonomous Chinese city aimed at silencing dissent.
A statue dedicated to the victims of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing was removed from the city’s top university. A memorial museum was raided. Books in public libraries about the killings of estimated hundreds of civilians were taken down.
Organizers of the annual candlelight vigil were put behind bars and charged with “incitement to subversion,” while residents were warned against unauthorized assembly. For the first time, the city’s Catholic churches also called off a special commemorative mass on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown over concerns that it could violate the national security law.
On Saturday, even subtle acts of defiance, such as holding a plastic candlelight, a box of Lego tanks, or a single bloom of chrysanthemum would draw police questioning. A car with a license plate that matches the date of the massacre was stopped and escorted away by police vehicles.
But for many, the government’s attempt to suppress history only reinforced their conviction.
“A flickering flame may seem like a gentle form of resistance, but it is precisely what the regime fears,” said veteran political reporter Ching Cheong. “Keeping the memories alive is a potent weapon against a regime that has lost its moral authority.”
He noted that the clampdown on the vigil in Hong Kong has drawn international attention. Many residents who had left Hong Kong have joined or organized events around the world to commemorate June Fourth, he added.
The EU office and the consulates of the U.S. and Finland in Hong Kong placed candlelights on their window sills, defying warnings from the Chinese foreign ministry not to make any public statements about the incident.
The Commissioner’s Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong has condemned the move. “Political show of certain foreign missions in Hong Kong is contrary to will of people and fanning flames is doomed to failure,” it wrote in a statement on Saturday.
For some residents, the banning of public commemoration lends new meaning to the ritual.
“The fact that a candlelight can be a threat to the government only shows how fragile the regime is and how much they fear the power of the people,” said Luk, a resident who commemorated the massacre with her friends in private. She provided only her surname due to fear of reprisal. “As long as the victims aren’t vindicated, people will still remember. It has been etched into our collective memory.”
For Tsang, a stage actress in Hong Kong, whether the tragedy would be forgotten is beside the question. On Saturday, she sat on a bench near the park surrounded by cops, reading the script of the 2019 play May 35th, which parodied the state-imposed amnesia of the massacre. In less than three years, the absurdity depicted in the play has become the reality in Hong Kong, said Tsang, who provided only her surname.
But it is pointless to predict what might happen and people could only do their part to pass on the torch, she added.
For her, that means making sure her two nephews know the atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party on this day in 1989. “For many years, people have criticized the vigil as an empty ritual. Maybe now that it is not allowed, people will finally think about its relevance to our generation,” she said.