Hong Kongers try their best to remember Tiananmen Square

FOR SEVEN weeks in 1989, China was convulsed by pro-democracy demonstrations that ended with the army’s killing of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters in Beijing on June 3rd and 4th. In Hong Kong, then a British colony and a city that had long been considered politically apathetic, people watched on in horror. More than 1m people in Hong Kong attended each of three enormous rallies held in solidarity with the protesters in mainland China. Some travelled north, smuggling resources into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the centre of the protests, and, after the crackdown, helping demonstrators flee the country. The events that unfolded in Beijing inspired the birth of Hong Kong’s own pro-democracy movement.

Hong Kong has since been the only place on Chinese soil where officials have permitted a public commemoration of the tragedy of June 1989. The city was home to the world’s largest annual acts of remembrance, most prominently a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. Every year tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of mourners would gather to remind themselves how different their city was from the mainland, where many still do not know what happened in 1989 because of government-imposed amnesia. Not any more.

For a second year in a row, the Hong Kong government has banned the vigil, citing worries about the spread of the coronavirus. Many believe this is an excuse to clamp down further on their civil liberties, after a draconian security law was imposed on Hong Kong by the central government in Beijing almost a year ago. For several weeks, Hong Kong has had no local, untraceable covid-19 infections. Art fairs and sports competitions have gone ahead, with government approval. Yet anyone found participating in an unauthorised assembly faces up to five years’ imprisonment; those who publicise a public gathering face a year behind bars. Last year hundreds defied the ban. This year the authorities sealed off the park, blocked roads and deployed more than one-fifth of the city’s 7,000-strong police force to keep protesters at bay.

On June 4th Chow Hang Tung, a barrister and human-rights activist, was arrested, accused of using social media to promote the banned vigil. Ms Chow is the vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group that organised previous gatherings. She was one of six people arrested that day for participating in illegal protests or inciting others to do so. On May 30th an elderly democracy activist, Alexandra Wong (known as Grandma Wong), was arrested for allegedly attempting to incite others to take part in an unauthorised assembly as she marched, by herself, towards the central government’s representative office in the territory. A museum commemorating the massacre in 1989 run by the Hong Kong Alliance was forced to close on June 2nd after police said it lacked the correct operating licence. The group also cancelled an online vigil for fear it would be in violation of the security law.

Pro-government politicians and groups in Hong Kong used mostly to avoid talking about the city’s annual remembrance ceremonies, afraid of provoking a public backlash. This has changed. A local news outlet interviewed establishment politicians who, in 1989, signed a petition in support of the student protesters. A pro-government politician has said calls for democracy in Hong Kong may violate the security law. After several churches said they would hold low-key services to commemorate the killings, banners with slogans such as “Churchgoers: be careful not to violate the security law” and “Evil cults have infiltrated religion” appeared in front of them. Government-friends organisations in Hong Kong previously only used the term “evil cult” to describe the Falun Gong religious sect.

An unintended consequence of the ban has been to unite the city’s democracy movement and strengthen its ties to mainland activists. In the early 2010s attendance at the annual vigil shrank; many younger people rejected the perceived pan-Chinese nationalism and the idea of an emotional connection between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. A localist movement, promoting self-determination and political independence, emerged.

But this year many who had previously called for boycotts of the vigils have changed their minds. After human-rights lawyers in mainland China last year defended young protesters from Hong Kong arrested in nearby Shenzhen, “I unexpectedly realised we have a connection with human-rights activists in China and we should become political allies,” Jerry Yuen, a prominent activist of localism in Hong Kong, wrote on Facebook.

Many in Hong Kong marked the anniversary anyway. Despite deep police lines blocking access to Victoria Park, hundreds clad in black walked around its edge. Crowds in other parts of the city flashed their mobile-phone lights and shouted popular slogans from pro-democracy protests in the city in 2019. One man brought a pro-Beijing newspaper from 1989 to a park to read out its coverage about June 4th. The police subsequently searched him. The organisers of previous years’ vigils called on people to light a candle at home. The American consulate placed 400 electric candles in the building’s windows. A local artist, writing in a local newspaper, suggested people write “6-4” on light switches: “Think of this daily act of turning on and off the lights as a ritual and connect your present life to history”.

“If anything, the government’s clampdown on this year’s vigil has just increased everyone’s desire to remember,” says a Hong Konger who, as a student 32 years ago, travelled to Beijing and was in Tiananmen Square during the crackdown. The sea of candlelight that illuminates Victoria Park each year may have been extinguished. Yet fireflies continue to flicker in the dark.

The Economist

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