Tiananmen Vigil Organizers Say They Will Defy Hong Kong Police Ban

HONG KONG — The organizers of an annual vigil in Hong Kong for the violent crackdown on the Tiananmen protests in China said they plan to gather Thursday evening despite a first-ever police ban of the event.

Hong Kong, which has far greater civil liberties than mainland China, has always been the most important site for public commemoration of those killed in 1989. But democracy advocates fear the space for uncomfortable political speech is collapsing as China’s central government exercises greater control over the semiautonomous city after a year of protests.

Beijing declared last week that it will impose a new national security law on Hong Kong that calls into question the future of organizations, events and even comments that challenge the Chinese Communist Party. On Thursday evening, Hong Kong lawmakers are expected to approve a law that would criminalize disrespect of the national anthem and make it punishable by up to three years in prison.

The police said the Tiananmen vigil, which is usually held in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island, would be unsafe given the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Public gatherings of more than eight people are barred in the city, a ban that was extended this week.

Organizers said they believed political motives were behind the move to block the vigil. The police have cited social-distancing regulations to limit pro-democracy protests in recent months.

The vigil organizers have asked those who want to mark the anniversary of the crackdown to light candles on their own or at booths set up around the city and post the images online.

In addition, seven Catholic churches in Hong Kong will hold masses on Thursday with a moment of silent prayer and lighting of candles for those killed in 1989. Churches have looser social-distancing rules that allow up to half their maximum capacity to attend services.

Members of the group that hosts the annual vigil, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said they believed it was important to gather in Victoria Park despite the risk of fines or arrest.

“It will be the last candlelight vigil before the national security act,” Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the alliance, said in explaining why he planned to still go to the park. “Next year will be even more dangerous. Next year they can use the national security act against the people of Hong Kong.”

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    Understand the Current Hong Kong Protests

    Updated May 27, 2020

    • Where we left off

      In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

      Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.

    • How it’s different this time

      Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.

    • What’s happening now

      This latest round of demonstrations in Hong Kong has been fueled largely by China’s ruling Communist Party move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

      To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

The Hong Kong vigil, with thousands of candlelit faces backed by the dense buildings of the Causeway Bay neighborhood, has offered the rare opportunity in China to commemorate the hundreds and possibly thousands of people who were killed by troops in Beijing and other Chinese cities in the early summer of 1989. In mainland China, any discussion of the anniversary is quickly scrubbed by censors, while the authorities harass relatives of those killed and block any formal memorials.

In Hong Kong each year, local religious leaders and pro-democracy political figures usually speak along with veterans of the Tiananmen protests and the parents of those who were killed. The annual event has also become an important part of Hong Kong’s own political development.

For a few hours each June 4 the hard-surface soccer fields of Victoria Park, often dampened by heavy summer rains, are not just a place to memorialize the dead but a history classroom for the young, a canvasing site for local pro-democracy groups and a gauge of whether the city can maintain the political freedoms that have become part of its identity.

The event has continued even after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control in 1997. “It’s a sort of symbol of whether, under Communist Party rule, one country, two systems can work, of whether we can have this condemnation of the massacre continuously carried forward after ’97,” said Mr. Lee.

Skyler Wong, a 24-year-old environmental educator, said she first attended the vigil by herself at age 15 after a teacher showed clips of the crackdown in class. It was the first political event she had attended, and she considers it the start of her personal political awakening.

“I was very moved,” she said. “I grew up thinking Hong Kongers were very apathetic. I never thought that there would be so many in Hong Kong who would take a stand over their conscience.”

Ms. Wong said she expected this year’s vigil to be banned over social-distancing regulations, though she suspected it was an excuse to prohibit a political gathering. She plans to attend a smaller open-air discussion and light candles in her community to commemorate the event.

Attendance at past vigils has risen and fallen from year to year, often in line with broader public sentiment toward China’s central government. Younger activists have organized alternative commemorations, saying the calls for a democratic China were disconnected from Hong Kong’s own political struggles.

Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said that though he had once questioned the value of the annual vigil, he intended to walk toward Victoria Park on Thursday despite the police ban. “The world has to see the lighthouse of memory standing tall at Victoria Park this year, more than any other year,” he wrote on Facebook.

Han Dongfang, a Tiananmen protest leader who spent almost two years in prison after the crackdown, has regularly attended the vigils since he was expelled to Hong Kong in 1993. He said he, too, would go to Victoria Park with his children, despite the police restrictions.

“I don’t mind if other people don’t go, if it is not an official event or demonstration or protest,” said Mr. Han, who runs a workers’ rights organization, the China Labor Bulletin. “To me it’s a symbolic place and a symbolic day to commemorate this for my children. I want them to know.”

In Macau, the only other place in China where Tiananmen is publicly commemorated, the authorities revoked permission last month for an annual photo exhibition of the crackdown. Democracy advocates there said they suspected that the move, which was described as part of a standardization of the use of public spaces, was an effort to clamp down on dissent.

Like Hong Kong, Macau operates as a part of China but with its own local system. In practice, it is far more politically constrained than Hong Kong.

Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Javier C. Hernández from Taipei, Taiwan.

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