Hong Kong drives Tiananmen memories underground on anniversary
Hong Kong authorities strove on Saturday to stop any public commemoration of the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, with police warning gatherings could break the law as China vies to remove all reminders of the deadly event.
On June 4, 1989, Beijing sent troops and tanks to break up peaceful protests, crushing demonstrations calling for political change and curbs on official corruption.
Hundreds, by some estimates more than 1,000, were killed in the crackdown.
Discussion of what happened is all but forbidden on the mainland.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong had been the one place in China where large-scale remembrance was still tolerated — until two years ago when Beijing imposed a national security law to snuff out dissent after huge pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Authorities have warned the public that “participating in an unauthorised assembly” on Saturday risks a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.
They have also closed large parts of Victoria Park, once the site of packed annual candlelight vigils attended by tens of thousands.
– ‘Infringing individual freedom’ –
The park and nearby Causeway Bay shopping district were heavily policed Saturday, and multiple people were stopped and searched.
One man, wearing a black T-shirt and carrying a white chrysanthemum, a sign of mourning, spoke to reporters after being searched.
“The police warned me not to do anything to attract people to gather,” said the man, surnamed Lau. “But people are going to work and I am just passing by with a white chrysanthemum.”
“This is infringing on Hong Kong people’s individual freedom.”
Lau said he used to join the vigil every year.
One former leader of the now-disbanded vigil organiser, Hong Kong Alliance, was surrounded by police as he walked around with a bunch of red and white roses, and his bag searched.
Pedestrian areas where in the past pro-democracy groups would set up booths were cordoned off, and local media said some reporters had their information taken down and were restricted into a press area.
“Keep going. Nothing to see here,” an officer told passersby through a loudspeaker.
AFP journalists saw one man in a black T-shirt being taken away in a police van.
The night before in the same area, a performance artist who whittled a potato into the shape of a candle and held a lighter to it was also taken away.
– ‘Scared of assembly’ –
Security was heightened in Beijing on Saturday as well, with officer numbers bulked up, and ID checks and facial recognition devices set up on roads leading to Tiananmen Square.
China has gone to exhaustive lengths to erase the crackdown from collective memory, omitting it from history textbooks and scrubbing references to it from the Chinese internet and social media platforms.
A similar approach is now beginning to be applied to Hong Kong as authorities remould the city in the mainland’s image.
Since last September, the Victoria Park vigil’s organisers have been arrested and charged with subversion, their June 4 museum has been closed, statues have been removed and memorial church services cancelled.
Commemoration events in Macau were also cancelled this year.
“The government is so scared of any possible assembly,” said Dorothy, a 32-year-old coach who spoke to AFP near Victoria Park on Saturday morning.
She said she had not been a regular attendee at the vigils, but that it was “a great loss for the society”.
– ‘Memories systematically erased’ –
Multiple Western Consulate Generals in Hong Kong on Saturday posted Tiananmen tributes on social media, despite local media reports that they had been warned by the city’s Chinese foreign ministry office to refrain from doing so.
The European Union’s office confirmed to AFP that they had received a call.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday released a statement pledging to continue to “honour and remember those who stood up for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
“While many are no longer able to speak up themselves, we and many around the world continue to stand up on their behalf,” he said, specifically mentioning the situation in Hong Kong.
Vigils will be held globally, with rights group Amnesty International coordinating candlelit ones in 20 cities “to demand justice and show solidarity for Hong Kong”.
One Hong Konger told AFP that in place of the Victoria Park vigil, she had lit a candle at home instead, and would walk around the city wearing a T-shirt with June 4 numerals as a more “subtle” form of remembrance.
“The collective memories of June 4 in Hong Kong are being systematically erased,” said Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in a statement on Saturday. “But we believe that such coarse and unreasonable measures cannot wipe away people’s memories.”