HONG KONG – They were forbidden to hold their usual commemoration, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t remember it.
They gathered in line to watch a play on the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989. They prowled bookstores looking for protest-themed postcards hidden in piles. They scribbled the numbers 6 and 4 on their light switches, so everyday actions turned into little acts of defiance.
Pro-democracy Hong Kong residents are looking for new ways to keep the memory of the Chinese military’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square, under a government increasingly determined to crack down on dissent and free speech. City officials have, for the second year in a row, banned a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, warning that participation could lead to five years in prison.
The annual vigil, which for decades attracted tens of thousands of people, has long been crucial to public memory of the 1989 crackdown. It was the only large-scale memorial to the massacre on Chinese-controlled soil, Beijing. having silenced all commemoration on the continent.
But it also has enormous significance for the present day of Hong Kong. As the city’s pro-democracy movement falters, if and for how long residents will continue to commemorate Tiananmen has become a litmus test for their willingness to continue fighting for their rights.
“Hong Kong civil society has been silent for so long already under fear of the National Security Law,” said Chow Hang Tung, vice president of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, the militant group which organizes the vigil. This year, its organizers canceled the event but encouraged people to independently light candles in public places.
“If you can go out now and take that little step and see yourself,” Ms. Chow said in an interview earlier this week, “I think that will spur the movement.”
Early Friday morning, Hong Kong police arrested Ms. Chow and charged her with publicity of an unauthorized gathering.
Yet in the days leading up to the anniversary, several pro-democracy groups had appeared to answer the call to remember. They organized film screenings and street stalls, teaching sessions and religious services, to show that the ban would not have the desired effect.
“For various reasons, we may not be able to speak clearly, but we must not forget the story,” a branch of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong wrote on Facebook.
The promise of perseverance is also fraught with anxiety. Some of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy leaders have been arrested or jailed for attending last year’s banned vigil. With the new national security law as a backdrop, authorities have even targeted peaceful protests against Beijing.
The law grants Beijing broad powers to crack down on a variety of political crimes, including separatism and collusion.
On Sunday, 65-year-old activist Alexandra Wong was arrested after a solo protest in which she held a sign referring to June 4. Police said she was suspected of unauthorized assembly and incitement to participate; a police spokeswoman declined to answer how a person could constitute an assembly. (Ms. Wong was later released.)
The importance of the annual vigil comes from Hong Kong’s unique position: the territory is part of China but was promised unprecedented civil liberties on the mainland following its return from British colonial control.
On the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party imposed widespread public amnesia from the 1989 killings, which left hundreds, if not thousands, dead. But in Hong Kong, the massacre marked a turning point in the city’s political consciousness, heightening fear of Chinese control. For 30 years thereafter, the Victoria Park vigil was a milestone in the calendars of many Hong Kongers.
The vigil also came to mean more than the historical event itself, as it became a barometer of public sentiment towards the government. Interest had declined in recent years among some young people, who increasingly rejected the continent and distanced themselves from its tragedies. But in times of political turmoil, turnout increased, including in 2019, when anti-government sentiment was about to escalate into mass protests.
Then, in 2020, the government banned the vigil for the first time, citing public health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands turned out anyway.
The reason for this year’s ban was apparently public health again. But the National Security Law, which came into force on June 30 last year, weighs heavily on the anniversary. Police are expected to deploy thousands of police on Friday.
Hong Kong people – who have become adept at finding new ways of expressing themselves under repression – have sought to maximize the limited space that remains.
Stage 64, a non-profit theater group, posted readings and plays on Facebook Live this week, including “May 35” – an imaginary date that would fall on June 4, in the blink of an eye to how the date is censored on Chinese social media. media. Three independent bookstores have announced a scavenger hunt for political comics, which they say are scattered across their shelves.
In a column in a local newspaper, an artist suggested that Hong Kong people write 6 and 4 on their light switches to replace lighting a candle in Victoria Park. “Think of the daily act of turning lights on and off as a ritual, and connect your present life to history,” artist Tozer Pak wrote.
Others have tried to preserve the usual rituals as much as possible. Several prominent pro-democracy groups have organized street stalls, as they have for decades, handing out candles and flyers promising to never forget Tiananmen.
Thursday evening, the eve of the forbidden vigil, a handful of people left candles and flowers in the park.
Ms Chow, of the Hong Kong Alliance, had said before her arrest that she still planned to go to the park in her personal capacity. “It’s a public park, it’s open, and I just want to commemorate there,” she said. “Why is this against the law? “
But the space for these alternative commemorations is shrinking.
Hong Kong’s education secretary said on Saturday that teachers should take “program goals” into account when deciding to cover the June 4 events. Several teachers have already said that they will not do it.
Officials on Wednesday accused a long-standing museum around June 4 of operating without a license, leading organizers to temporarily shut it down.
And over the past week, rowdies harassed activists at two street stalls, hitting a volunteer, according to the League of Social Democrats, organizers of the stalls. Hong Kong police confirmed they arrested a man for assault.
“I think the whole environment makes them think it’s easier to use violence because they think the government and the police are on their side,” League leader Chan Po Ying said. about pro-government residents.
The league also advised supporters to stay away from the booth they plan to set up near Victoria Park on Friday, Chan said, to avoid unnecessary risk.
The precautions have made many pro-democracy Hong Kongers feel that the city is increasingly indistinguishable from the mainland. But others have tried to point out the differences.
Rowena He, a history professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies June 4, said she plans to attend a church service on Friday. Some students had suggested a private meeting, she said. But it reminded her of her own teenage years on the mainland in the 1990s, when she paid tribute to the victims of the massacre in secret, with windows closed and lights out.
“In Hong Kong, I can still go out to cry with the rest of the people,” she said.
“Maybe next year, when we can’t even go to church, maybe that will be the only option,” she said of a private vigil. “I don’t want to do this yet.”
Joy Dong contributed research.