Defying Beijing, thousands in Hong Kong hold Tiananmen vigil

Javier C. Hernández, Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May, The New York Times

Posted at Jun 05 2020 01:14 AM

Defying a ban, people gathered in Hong Kong's Victoria Park on Thursday, June 4, 2020, to observe the annual vigil for victims of the Tiananmen killings. In a break with tradition, the authorities in Hong Kong, citing fears about the coronavirus, imposed a ban on the Tiananmen vigil in Victoria Park, an annual event that often brings together a sea of candlelit faces against the backdrop of the city’s dense buildings. Lam Yik Fei, The New York Times

Chanting slogans like “Liberate Hong Kong,” thousands of people in Hong Kong flouted a police ban Thursday as they gathered to memorialize the Tiananmen Square massacre, a striking display of defiance against Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory.

“We have a responsibility to remember and to grieve,” said Clara Tam, 51, who took part in a vigil for the victims of the Chinese military’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989. “We have to let survivors know that we have not forgotten the children and loved ones they had lost.”

The public displays of anger and grief took on greater meaning this year amid a push by China to impose broad new security measures that take direct aim at the semiautonomous territory’s antigovernment demonstrations. In what critics see as the government’s latest attempt to curb dissent, Hong Kong on Thursday passed a law making it a crime to mock China’s national anthem.

China’s ruling Communist Party has sought to curtail Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement after a year of demonstrations that sometimes turned violent. The unrest has erupted as Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, has overseen an expansive crackdown on dissent on the mainland, with officials deploying censorship and imprisonment to silence critics. Many residents in Hong Kong fear that their territory’s cherished civil liberties are in the party’s cross hairs.

In a break with tradition, the authorities in Hong Kong, citing fears about the coronavirus, imposed a ban on the Tiananmen vigil in Victoria Park, an annual event that often brings together a sea of candlelit faces against the backdrop of the city’s dense buildings. Officials urged residents to observe social distancing rules that barred public gatherings of more than eight people.

Still, activists filed into parks and subway stations Thursday, facing off against police as they honored victims of the crackdown in several districts across the territory. Some stayed at home, lighting candles and praying for freedom. Others voiced protests in the legislature, denouncing China as a “murderous state.”

At Victoria Park, thousands of people hopped over fences and barriers to take part in a loosely organized memorial. Many people sat on the ground, holding lit candles. Some played songs that were used during the 1989 democracy movement in China. Public announcements about social distancing rules played over loudspeakers.

“What we are fighting for is the same: freedom and democracy. And they did so facing the risk of death,” said Mary Li, a 23-year-old university student, who sat with her friends in the park. “Coming here today, we may only be risking arrest. What they experienced makes me feel very somber.”

The authorities’ ban on gatherings was a blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, who have for decades resisted the Chinese government’s attempts to erase the massacre from history. In mainland China, officials ban most discussions of the crackdown in which the government turned its troops and tanks on crowds of protesters, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Now, the authorities routinely harass relatives of those killed and block any formal memorials.

Hong Kong has long hosted the only large-scale commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown on Chinese soil. Each June 4, the hard-surfaced soccer fields of Victoria Park have served not only as a place to memorialize the dead but also as a history classroom for the young and a canvasing site for local pro-democracy groups.

The annual vigil also has acted as a gauge of whether Hong Kong can maintain the political freedoms that have become part of its identity, guaranteed under a policy known as “one country, two systems,” which was put in place when Britain returned the city to Chinese rule 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 Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer of the annual vigil.

Activists worry that China’s growing crackdown on Hong Kong could spell the end of such gatherings.

“With China imposing their rules, now is the time to speak out,” said Marcus Leung, a 40-year-old software engineer. “Next year I don’t know if I can come here.”

Chinese authorities may increasingly take aim at the Tiananmen memorials in Hong Kong, seeing them as a political embarrassment and “firewood under the caldron” for the pro-democracy movement, said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing who is critical of the government.

Wu said the vigils are a reminder that the party’s authority derives from military might, not popular support.

“It fully exposes the nature of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “It maintains power in such an anti-humanitarian and poisonous way.”

On Thursday, in a move that opposition politicians said would inhibit free speech, Hong Kong’s legislature, which is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, passed a law that would criminalize disrespect for China’s national anthem and make it punishable by up to three years in prison.

The measure drew widespread anger, with pro-democracy lawmakers disrupting debate over the law Thursday by throwing stink bombs in the legislative chamber. In a nod to the Tiananmen anniversary, many also yelled: “A murderous regime stinks for 10,000 years.”

“What we did today is to remind the world that we should never forgive the Chinese Communist Party for killing its own people 31 years ago,” Eddie Chu, one of the opposition lawmakers who protested the law, told reporters later.

In Beijing, there was virtually no mention of the anniversary of the massacre, in keeping with the party’s practice. The Foreign Ministry dismissed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s criticism of the government’s handling of the Tiananmen protests, saying that Chinese authorities have broad support. Pompeo this week met with participants in the protests and criticized the decision to ban the vigil in Hong Kong.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the ministry in Beijing, referred to the massacre obliquely as the “political turmoil that occurred in the late 1980s” at a regular news briefing. He praised China’s achievements since the party took power more than 70 years ago and said that the path chosen by Chinese leaders was “heartily supported by the broad masses of the people.”

China has come under broad criticism from the United States and other countries for moving to quash dissent in Hong Kong with the new security laws. Britain this week promised to allow nearly 3 million people from Hong Kong to live and work in the country if China’s leaders moved forward with the laws, inflaming tensions with Beijing.

In the run-up to the Tiananmen anniversary, the state-run news media published commentaries describing what they called the need for stricter oversight of Hong Kong and criticizing the United States for threatening to punish China for imposing the new security laws.

“Hong Kong is part of China, and Chinese people will never give up its sovereignty over Hong Kong,” said an editorial Wednesday in Global Times, a state-run newspaper. “There is no room for argument on this matter.”

The new security laws, which Beijing may draft by September, have revived concerns about the broader erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, which has long enjoyed rights and institutions not allowed in mainland China, such as an unrestricted internet and independent courts. The laws call into question the future of organizations and events that challenge the party’s rule.

The ban on the vigil added to the drumbeat of concerns that Beijing’s demands for security and stability would further erode Hong Kong’s freedoms. While the Hong Kong police cited social-distancing regulations in banning the vigil, activists said they believed that political motives were behind the decision.

As crowds gathered to take part in vigils across the city Thursday, the police seemed largely to act with restraint, standing watch outside subway stations and city parks.

As the crowds filed out of Victoria Park, some people stopped to leave candles on top of gates near soccer fields. Others used them to illuminate posters bearing protest slogans.

“Use candlelight to ignite resistance,” one poster said. “Turn remembrance into action.”