HONG KONG -- Heavy police force patrolled Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on Saturday after authorities for a third consecutive year banned public commemoration of the anniversary of the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, with vigils overseas the only place marking the event.
For decades, Hong Kong and nearby Macao were the only places in China allowed to commemorate the violent suppression by army troops of student protesters demanding greater democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.
The ban is seen as part of a move to snuff out political dissent and a sign that Hong Kong is losing its freedoms as Beijing tightens its grip over the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The vigil organizers, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, disbanded last year after many of its leaders were arrested on suspicion of violating the national security law, which was imposed following massive pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Authorities have cited risks from the coronavirus for banning the public commemoration over the past three years. Critics say the pandemic is used as an excuse to infringe on the right to assemble.
A government statement Friday said that parts of Victoria Park, which traditionally served as the venue for the candlelight vigil, will be closed as it may be used for “illegal activities.” The move was to “prevent any unauthorized assemblies” in the park and to reduce the possibility of COVID-19 spread.
Earlier in the week, a police superintendent warned that anyone who gathered in a group “at the same place, with the same time and with a common purpose to express certain views” could be considered part of an unauthorized assembly.
Despite the ban, some residents wore black in a silent show of support, and some even carried bouquets of flowers, held candles or turned on the flashlight on their cellphones.
“Today, this is to commemorate June 4th. Every year I have to do it,” said Man Yuen, who appeared in a black T-shirt with the words “the people will not forget” while walking down the streets carrying an unlit candle.
Police stopped and searched several people, some of whom were dressed in black. It is unclear if any arrests were made.
“I am disappointed because although no one organized any commemoration event, the authorities are already on high alert,” said Donald Tam, who was shopping in the Causeway Bay district, where the park is located.
Since the British handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city has been governed under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised it liberties not found on the mainland, including freedom of speech and assembly. It meant Hong Kong and nearby Macao, the other semi-autonomous territory, were allowed to commemorate the 1989 crackdown. Elsewhere in China, keywords such as “Tiananmen massacre” and “June 4” are strictly censored online, and people are not allowed to publicly mark the event.
Outside China, vigils were held to remember the Tiananmen victims.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said even though Chinese and Hong Kong were attempting to suppress the memories of the crackdown, his government would continue to speak out and promote accountability on human rights abuses by China, including those in Hong Kong, against Muslim minorities in the western Xinjiang region as well as Tibet.
“To the people of China and to those who continue to stand against injustice and seek freedom, we will not forget June 4,” he said.
The U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong lit candles in the windows of the building.
In Taiwan, a self-ruled island claimed by Beijing as part of its territory, hundreds took part in the vigil. The Foreign Ministry wrote on Facebook that “when this time of year comes around, there is a lot one can’t say, a lot one can’t write, and a lot one can’t even look up on the internet.”
The post encouraged Chinese citizens who use a VPN to access Facebook, which is blocked in China, and search for information on the Tiananmen Square massacre “to see what their country is hiding from them.”
“Taiwan has been commemorating the June 4 massacre before Hong Kong did, and each place (in the rest of the world) that holds this event interprets it in its own ways,” said Taiwan democracy activist Lee Ming-che. “We must be aware of China’s threats and protect Taiwan’s values of democracy, human rights, and freedom.”
Graduate student Joanna Chen said that commemorating the June 4 massacre is important because Taiwan is one of the few places in Greater China to commemorate such an event publicly.
“We must remind the Taiwanese people that democracy should not be taken for granted,” she said.
In Sydney, about 50 pro-democracy supporters lit candles outside the Chinese Consulate to mark the massacre, as several police officers kept watch.
In the Indian city of Dharmsala, home to Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, activists organized a street theater to mark the Tiananmen anniversary. They used a cutout of a Chinese tank to recreate the “tank man,” an iconic image taken by The Associated Press of a student standing in front of a tank, which came to symbolize courage in the face of Chinese government’s crackdown of the protest.
For the first time in 30 years, Hong Kong's Catholic churches also skipped Mass for the Tiananmen victims, after the diocese expressed concerns that such events could violate the national security law.
Authorities have been using the law to crack down on the opposition, with over 150 people arrested on suspicion of offences that include subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs.
The clampdown has included universities as well. In December 2021, a sculpture called “Pillar of Shame,” which depicts torn and twisted bodies symbolizing the lives lost during the massacre, was taken down at the University of Hong Kong. Officials said that no approval had been obtained to display the sculpture.
A day later, two other universities in the city removed monuments related to the commemoration.
In response, Jens Galschioet, the artist who created “Pillar of Shame,” last week unveiled a full-scale replica of the 8-meter- (26 foot) tall sculpture at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Associated Press journalists Alice Fung in Hong Kong, Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, Mark Baker in Sydney, and Ashwini Bhatia in Dharmsala, India, contributed to this report.