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Hong Kong's Tiananmen Square Vigil Is Banned As Authorities Arrest Organizers

Hong Kong's Victoria Park has been the site of past candlelight vigils to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Authorities charged more than 20 protesters with unlawful assembly after last year's vigil and, on Friday, arrested one of the organizers of the banned event.
Hong Kong's Victoria Park has been the site of past candlelight vigils to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Authorities charged more than 20 protesters with unlawful assembly after last year's vigil and, on Friday, arrested one of the organizers of the banned event.

Updated June 4, 2021 at 3:01 PM ET

BEIJING — Commemorative gatherings banned. A prominent pro-democracy activist arrested.

This June 4 in Hong Kong will be unusually quiet for the second year in a row, as the region's Beijing-backed government has again banned an annual candlelight vigil marking the Tiananmen Massacre, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Two people have already been arrested, accused of encouraging people to attend the vigil.

"It's quite obvious it's political," said Chris Yeung, a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong, speaking about the police ban on the gathering.

On June 4, 1989, protesters and onlookers in Beijing — many of them young students — were killed by Chinese troops instructed to violently put down a sustained democratic movement. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. Records remain incomplete and Beijing has never publicly confirmed a death toll. Any public mention of the massacre is forbidden in mainland China.

Normally, thousands of people congregate in Hong Kong's Victoria Park after sunset on June 4, each holding a single candle to remember the massacre. But these are not normal times in Hong Kong. Thousands of police were deployed to thwart any vigil this year, cordoning off the park. Still, hundreds of people gathered near Victoria Park to remember the crackdown, according to The Associated Press.

"It's a very dark day for trying to keep the memory alive," said Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine.

A resurgence of the coronavirus in Taiwan has stymied organizing efforts there, so for the first time since the 1989 massacre, there will be no public gathering in the Chinese-speaking world to remember the crackdown.

Beijing's grip on the former British colony has tightened markedly. In 2020, authorities enacted a sweeping national security law that scholars say effectively dismantles the policy of "One Country, Two Systems," which was meant to create a legal buffer between mainland China and Hong Kong.

"With the vigils being gone, it's one of the many signs that Hong Kong is becoming increasingly 'One Country, One System,' and that there are really fewer and fewer things you can do in Hong Kong that you cannot do in the mainland," said Wasserstrom.

Last year, despite police refusing to allow the annual candlelight vigil, thousands of people showed up anyway. Police have since charged more than 20 pro-democracy activists with unlawful assembly. "This year, people will be scared, and the government also want to scare people not to do it," said Yueng.

This year, many of the territory's highest-profile democracy activists have been arrested or are in prison, including Lee Cheuk-yan, who was chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. The vice chair of the alliance, Chow Hang-tung — one of the region's few remaining pro-democracy leaders who has not yet fled Hong Kong — was arrested Friday morning.

Quieter commemorations in Hong Kong

This June 4, Hong Kongers instead were encouraged to practice more private forms of resistance, such as lighting a solitary candle at home or walking around Victoria Park on their own.

"Individually, we can still find different sorts of ways. It would be very hard for the government to say we are doing unlawful activity," said Richard Choi, who was the Hong Kong Alliance's secretary and is now helping to run the organization after Lee was arrested.

But Hong Kong police are on high alert Friday to spot even these passive signs of remembering. Local media report that about 1,000 officers have been marshaled to patrol the vicinity of Victoria Park — where the vigil historically has been held — and to arrest anyone chanting political slogans or wearing all black, a color many protesters donned during mass anti-government demonstrations in 2019.

Chow had spent the days in the run-up to June 4 asking Hong Kongers to remember the Tiananmen Massacre in more private ways. "We are asking Hong Kong people to light a candle at 8 p.m., wherever you are. It's a different way of organizing," she told local media last month.

Through her lawyer, Chow said she would fast for the day, as she could no longer light a candle while under arrest.

"Remembering becomes resistance"

Tiananmen commemoration events are still being held around the world, though many of them will be online only because of pandemic-related restrictions on large gatherings.

"It's not possible to kill the memory of an atrocity or to totally wipe out what happened, and it's actually counterproductive," said Jeremy Brown, a historian at Simon Fraser University in Canada. "Remembering becomes resistance."

Han Dongfang is a living example of that. He was a railway worker in Beijing in 1989. He joined the protests and did jail time for his activism. He has since been living in Hong Kong, where he works as an activist on labor issues in China. He has attended the candlelight vigils, but not every year.

"June 4 is part of my life. If anyone has two birthdays, that's my second birthday. I don't need an event to commemorate this," said Han.

He doesn't know yet how he'll mark the day this year, but he said he will.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.