By Su Xinqi and Jerome Taylor
Hong Kong will on Thursday lead global remembrance of China’s deadly Tiananmen crackdown, with people lighting candles in neighbourhoods across the restless city after authorities banned a mass vigil because of the coronavirus.
Open discussion of the brutal suppression is forbidden inside 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 Hong Kongers have kept memories alive for the last three decades by holding a huge annual vigil in a park, the only place inside China were such mass displays of remembrance are possible.
This year’s vigil was forbidden on public health grounds with restrictions placed on more than eight people gathering in public, to combat the coronavirus.
Organisers have instead called for residents to light candles at 8:00 pm (1200 GMT) wherever they happen to be.
“If we are not allowed to light a candle at a rally, we will let the candles be lit across the city,” Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of vigil organisers Hong Kong Alliance, told reporters.
Crowds have swelled at Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigils whenever fears spike that Beijing is prematurely stamping out the semi-autonomous city’s own cherished freedoms, an issue that has dominated the finance hub for the last 12 months.
The business hub 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.
Security and anthem laws
In response to those protests last month Beijing announced plans to introduce a sweeping national security law covering 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.
Hong Kong’s lawmakers are also expected to sign off on another controversial law on Thursday — one punishing insults towards China’s national anthem with up to three years in jail.
With the Victoria Park vigil banned, Hong Kongers are organising locally and getting creative.
“We are expecting white candles to be distributed at 100 to 200 spots across Hong Kong,” Chiu Yan-loy, a district councillor and alliance member told AFP.
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.
Vigils are also planned in neighbouring Taiwan and among the Chinese diaspora in many western countries.
But in mainland China, Tiananmen 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.
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”.
“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.