For the first time, Hong Kong will not host an official memorial for the victims of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 as the city’s national security law takes full effect.
Every year for more than three decades, Hong Kong people have gathered in Victoria Park for a candlelit ceremony with songs and speeches to mark the day on June 4 when the military brought a brutal end to months-long democracy protests in the heart of Beijing.
Attendees braved pandemic protocols against public gatherings to gather in small numbers to mark the day in 2020, but at the end of that month Beijing imposed a national security law on the territory and no formal vigil was held last year.
Ahead of this year’s anniversary, Hong Kong police again warned residents not to organize or attend events in Victoria Park and said sharing social media posts could be grounds for “incitement,” according to the local media group the Hong Kong Free Press.
The warning was no surprise to Hong Kongers whose lives have been turned upside down over the past two years by stringent COVID-19 restrictions and the national security legislation. The combination has brought an end to public demonstrations and silenced many civil society groups and cultural institutions, including those connected with the remembrance of what happened in Tiananmen.
“One of our city-wide traditions of hosting the June 4 vigil is now no longer a thing and it’s being erased from the public memory and even erased from our social history,” said Anna Kwok, strategy and campaign director at the Hong Kong Democracy Council in the US.
“I think that is definitely a grim reality that Hong Kongers are facing that they no longer enjoy freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and they can no longer assert the rights they have as human beings to really just remember things from the June 4 massacre.”
Vigils cancelled, monuments erased
In a sign of the times, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong said in mid-May that for the first time it would not host its annual memorial mass for those who died in Beijing in 1989. China’s government has never revealed how many were killed, but human rights groups and activists estimate thousands died when troops opened fire on peaceful protesters, and the mass was the last organised event on Chinese territory to honour the victims of Tiananmen.
News of the cancelled mass followed the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong. Zen was arrested alongside four other prominent people for alleged “collusion with foreign forces” while serving as trustee of a charity that provided legal assistance to pro-democracy protesters.
Hong Kong’s new security regime has also made an example out of the city’s annual vigil organisers.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements, the longstanding organiser of the Victoria Park vigil, disbanded last year following a police investigation into whether it was an “agent of foreign forces”. Founded in May 1989 as a show of solidarity for the democracy protests that were underway in Tiananmen Square, the organisation also developed strong associations with Hong Kong’s now suppressed democracy movement.
Top leaders like Albert Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan have been prosecuted for their involvement in Hong Kong’s months of protest in 2019, while Chow Hang-tung was prosecuted for inciting others to take part in an unofficial Tiananmen vigil in 2020.
The trio are facing separate charges of incitement to subversion under national security laws. They are among the 1,014 people classified as “political prisoners” by the Hong Kong Democracy Council.
It is not only events that are being banned, symbols of remembrance are also being erased.
Last December, while most people were asleep, the University of Hong Kong removed The Pillar of Shame, an eight-metre (26-foot) high sculpture to commemorate victims of the massacre. Jens Galschiot, the Danish artist who had loaned the work to Hong Kong since 1997, said its removal was a “crime against democracy“.
The same month, the Chinese University of Hong Kong tore down the Goddess of Democracy statue, a replica of the one created by protesters in Beijing during the Tiananmen protests.
Last June, police also closed a small museum dedicated to Tiananmen Square that was operated by the Hong Kong Alliance.
For many people in Hong Kong, the Tiananmen Square vigil – known locally as “June 4” – was an annual fixture on the calendar and could draw tens of thousands of participants regardless of the sometimes rainy weather. While still a British colony, Hong Kong played an important role as a conduit for Tiananmen activists to secretly escape from China during “Operation Yellowbird” in 1989.
Even after the city returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it remained one of the few places on Chinese soil that could publicly remember what had happened.
In the last years of its operation, however, the vigil began to take on a different tone as a more localist oriented democracy movement emerged among young Hong Kongers, said Eric Tsui Sing-yan, a Hong Kong exile in Taiwan who has written about the city’s protest movements.
The 2019 vigil saw record numbers of attendees, excited by the lead up to a major protest in the coming days against a law that could allow people to be extradited from the territory to mainland China. A million would march against the law five days later, setting off months of protest and Hong Kong’s largest demonstrations since anti-British riots in 1967.
The feeling was further cemented in 2020, he said, when thousands defied police bans on public gatherings.
“The National Security Legislation would be enacted in less than a month. Still, tens of thousands went to the venue, chanting slogans despite the lack of any rundown. Some did light up their candles and mourn for the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre,” Tsui said of the memorial. “Yet most people were shouting ‘Revolution of Our Times’, ‘Restore Hong Kong’ or ‘Hong Kong Independence’, and singing ‘Glory to Hong Kong’.”
Even without a vigil of their own, Hong Kong people will still be able to go online or join the diaspora abroad to publicly commemorate Tiananmen Square, said the Hong Kong Democracy Council’s Kwok. Events will be held around the world, including in Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia.
“If someone inside Hong Kong were to sit in front of the computer for the entire day of June 4, that person can have virtual events around the clock to join and participate in,” she said. “So many Hong Kong groups around the world are organising their events with their own idea and interpretation of what happened on June 4 inside of Tiananmen Square.”