In a move of unparalleled defiance, Hong Kong marked China’s deadly Tiananmen crackdown on Thursday, with candle-light ceremonies set for the evening across the city after authorities banned a mass vigil at a time of seething anger over a planned new security law. This move comes amid the recent ban by Hong Kong police on the annual Tiananmen Vigil, which effectively bans the vigil being held in the only territory in the world where it is commemorated.
Open discussion of the brutal suppression is forbidden in mainland China, where hundreds — by some estimates more than a thousand — died when the Communist Party sent tanks on June 4, 1989 to crush a student-led demonstration in Beijing calling for democratic reforms.
But the people of semi-autonomous Hong Kong have kept memories alive for the past three decades by holding a huge annual vigil, the only part of China where such mass displays of remembrance are possible.
Tiananmen Vigil banned by police on public safety concerns
But police rejected permission for this year’s rally saying it would “constitute a major threat to the life and health of the general public”, according to a letter of objection to organisers obtained by AFP.
However, Hong Kong has managed to keep the virus mostly in check, with just over 1,000 infections and four deaths. Bars, restaurants, gyms and cinemas have largely reopened in recent weeks.
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In the last two days five local infections were reported, breaking nearly two weeks of zero tallies.
This makes the decision to ban the Tiananmen Vigil all the more perplexing for Hong Kongers who were geared to commemorate the deadly incident.
Hong Kongers commemorate Tiananmen despite ban by police
This year’s service was banned on public health grounds because of the coronavirus pandemic, with authorities not allowing people to gather in groups of more than eight.
Barricades surrounded the park on Thursday that has traditionally hosted the annual ceremony.
Read more: Tiananmen Vigil banned in Hong Kong for the first time in three decades
Organisers have urged residents to skirt the ban by instead lighting candles at 8:00 pm (1200 GMT) wherever they happen to be.
With Beijing planning to impose a new national security law on the finance hub that many believe will end the city’s unique freedoms, some residents on Thursday said they feared future memorials would also be blocked.
“I don’t believe it’s because of the pandemic. I think it’s political suppression,” said a man surnamed Wong, 53, who kneeled by the barricades outside Victoria Park to pay his respects to the dead before travelling to work.
“I do worry that we may lose this vigil forever.”
Hong Kong will lead global remembrance of China's deadly #Tiananmen crackdown, with people lighting candles in neighborhoods across the restless city after authorities banned a mass vigil because of the coronavirus. https://t.co/8PGiI1W9cR
— Eddie Du (@Edourdoo) June 3, 2020
Crowds have swelled at Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigils whenever fears have spiked that Beijing is prematurely stamping out the city’s own cherished freedoms, an issue that has dominated the finance hub for the past 12 months.
The city was engulfed by seven straight months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests last year — rallies that kicked off five days after the last annual vigil.
New Hong Kong security and anthem laws promulgated by China
In response to those protests last month Beijing announced plans to impose the security law, which would cover secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference.
China says the law — which will bypass Hong Kong’s legislature — is needed to tackle “terrorism” and “separatism” in a restless city it now regards as a direct national security threat.
But opponents, including many Western nations, fear it will bring mainland-style political oppression to a business hub that was supposedly guaranteed freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after its 1997 handover to China from Britain.
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Further inflaming tensions, China has been pushing for another law that would punish insults towards China’s national anthem with up three years in jail.
Hong Kong’s lawmakers are expected to vote on the anthem bill on Thursday.
Hong Kongers come up with innovative ways to hold vigil
With the Victoria Park vigil banned, Hong Kongers are organising locally and getting creative, chiefly with the scattered candle-light ceremonies.
Online groups have sent out maps and lists of more than a dozen districts calling for people to gather for small vigils.
Seven Catholic churches have also announced plans to host a commemorative mass on Thursday evening.
Riot police have moved swiftly against protests forming in recent weeks, citing the coronavirus measures and arresting hundreds of people.
Police in Hong Kong ban annual candlelit vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown, citing coronavirus concernshttps://t.co/mbslvmSTj5 pic.twitter.com/iXBgrNsKdH
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) June 1, 2020
Vigils are also planned in neighbouring Taiwan and among the Chinese diaspora in many western countries.
But in mainland China, the crackdown is greeted by an information blackout, with censors scrubbing mentions of protests and dissidents often visited by police in the days leading up to June 4.
Police in Beijing prevented a photographer from entering Tiananmen Square to record the regular pre-dawn flag-raising ceremony on Thursday.
The candle emoji has been unavailable in recent days on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.
On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry described calls by Taiwan for Beijing to apologise for the crackdown as “complete nonsense”.
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“The great achievements since the founding of new China over the past 70 or so years fully demonstrates that the developmental path China has chosen is completely correct,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk