Last June 4, tens of thousands of black-clad Hongkongers pushed past metal barriers around Victoria Park to attend Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
In so doing, they defied a police ban which authorities said was necessary to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was the first time in three decades the vigil had been banned, amid fears of shrinking civic freedoms in Hong Kong.
Police later charged 26 people in connection with the unauthorised vigil, both veteran democracy campaigners and younger and more radical activists. Among them was pro-democracy activist Sunny Cheung.
“I remember that day, we were so peaceful. Even the police did not use any force to stop people getting into Victoria Park,” the 25-year-old told HKFP from self-exile. “There was also no violence after the vigil.”
The yearly candlelit event at Victoria Park, organised since 1990 by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, is held to remember victims of Beijing’s military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters following months of student-led pro-democracy protests in mainland China. Historians estimate hundreds if not thousands were killed.
The ability of Hongkongers to commemorate the massacre had come to symbolise the freedoms they enjoyed as opposed to mainland China, where information is heavily censored and any mention of the massacre is scrubbed from social media.
Cheung, along with fellow pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, failed to show up last September at a court hearing of charges relating to the vigil. Cheung later the same day announced on social media he had fled to an undisclosed location, citing fears of being followed and threats to his family members.
Since then, he has watched from afar as his fellow activists were rounded up. In early May, four of the 26 charged over the unauthorised vigil were sentenced to between four months and ten months in prison.
“When I witness my friends and companions prosecuted and arrested… this is very disappointing and irritating,” Cheung, who is himself subject to an arrest warrant, told HKFP. “For many years, we could peacefully commemorate.”
“The threshold for organising a peaceful rally is just getting higher. When you participate in such a significant and peaceful rally, you can be sentenced to jail for several months. It’s getting more costly.”
Despite being a mainstay in Hong Kong’s political calendar, the Victoria Park vigil has not always garnered support from all democracy advocates.
Younger activists including Cheung, who championed a Hong Kong identity distinct from that of mainland China, had boycotted the vigil since the 2014 Umbrella Movement and instead held their own separate vigils on university campuses.
“There was a trend of localism rising and one of the critiques by localists against the vigil organised by the Alliance was about… the very strong sense of Chinese identity behind it,” Cheung said. The Alliance had traditionally campaigned for a democratic China.
“This was all about the political framing. Why should we commemorate the victims of the massacre? Is it because we are Chinese? Or is it because we uphold a humanitarian stance in order to commemorate this tragedy? The organiser previously focused on the Chinese nationalism sentiment and that did not echo with the ideology of the younger generation in Hong Kong a few years ago, ” he said.
The rift between moderate and radical pro-democracy activists, however, shifted in the wake of the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Last year’s vigil was a sign of solidarity between the two groups in the face of increasing political pressure, Cheung said.
“The so-called illegal assembly last year at Victoria Park was mass-mobilised…. people bypassed the police to walk into Victoria Park and to uphold different beliefs when they commemorate the victims of the June 4 massacre,” he said.
“We tried to stay united and demonstrate unity, no matter our political beliefs… in front of this kind of unprecedented political crackdown.”
His decision to attend the vigil was “to show our political will and to commemorate the victims in order to also pass on the spirit of those victims, to pass on the historical memories. We do not accept that the [Chinese] Communist Party is trying to erase and to change history. We do not accept that, no matter what political direction we believe in.”
Authorities have banned the vigil for the second year in a row, with the police issuing a letter of objection to the gathering the week before it was set to take place.
Cheung said the banning of the vigil for the second year in a row was proof of diminishing freedoms. “For many years and decades, the reason why Hong Kong has been Hong Kong was its political space, it’s the freedom that we can share and enjoy in our civil society.”
“The candlelight vigil is one of the most remarkable political events in Hong Kong that is really remembered and well-known in the world. When we can no longer even hold a peaceful rally at Victoria Park to pass on the spirit, to remember what the Chinese Communist Party did in the past, it’s not Hong Kong anymore,” he added.
National Security Law
But it was not the threat of several months in prison that pushed the activist to flee. Within weeks of last year’s vigil, Beijing passed its sweeping national security law criminalising secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life imprisonment.
“I feel guilty about leaving my counterparts and not being able to stand with them. Leaving Hong Kong has drawn a geographical boundary and it is tortuous that I cannot feel rooted with Hongkongers,” Cheung wrote in his post announcing he had left the city.
Cheung would be at serious risk of being charged under the security law should he return to Hong Kong.
Before he left, he had been heavily involved in lobbying the US to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as spokesperson for a coalition of 12 student unions. Under the act, over 30 Hong Kong and Chinese officials have been subject to US sanctions in recognition of diminishing freedoms in the city.
The coalition disbanded the day after the security law was passed on June 30 last year. “The major reason for me to leave is the national security law,” Cheung told HKFP. “To be very honest, this [June 4] charge is relatively trivial compared with other charges and crimes, like rioting and the national security law.”
A month before he fled last August, Cheung had stood in unofficial primary elections organised by the opposition as a political candidate for the Kowloon West constituency, winning 16,992 votes. In February, 47 of his fellow participants in the primary and its organisers were charged under the security law with “conspiracy to commit subversion.” The majority have been denied bail pending trial.
Cheung said he still fears for his safety abroad. “After I left Hong Kong, because I really kept my location confidential. I seldom mingle with others,” he said. “Currently, I’m safe but I’m still worried about being followed and I deliberately avoid going to those very crowded places in order to prevent being recognised by others.”
‘Preserve Hong Kong identity’
Despite keeping his current location a secret, Cheung in the last ten months has played a role in what activists call “the international frontline,” an overseas coalition campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong. Since last June, a series of high profile pro-democracy figures including Nathan Law and Ted Hui have also announced their self-exile.
“The international frontline plays a very significant role in the long run in providing safe harbour to protect Hongkongers who may need to leave Hong Kong. And since the freedoms and political opportunities in Hong Kong are getting limited and smaller, the diaspora community has to be strengthened,” Cheung said.
Along with other exiles, Cheung has launched a publication called “Flow Magazine” and an international advocacy charter dedicated to preserving and promoting the “uniqueness of Hong Kong identity and the diaspora” and upholding its values and identity, he said.
For Cheung, the overseas activism is crucial in safeguarding the beliefs and values of those who still hope for a democratic Hong Kong, in light of shrinking space for discussion and the implementation of national security education in the city’s classrooms.
“Hongkongers are worried that the next generation will not learn correct history, learn the correct values, observe society and make their own judgements,” he said.
“The purpose of building the international frontline…is actually to reclaim Hong Kong, to return to Hong Kong. We have to work on that and it’s my duty to remind Hongkongers who leave Hong Kong that we have to return to Hong Kong and we should do everything we can overseas to return to Hong Kong,” he continued.
“The first thing is to try and remind ourselves who we are and what we should carry on. That’s why I believe the diaspora has the obligation to preserve history and preserve their identity,” he added.
Although Cheung struggles to provide a timeline for when he can return, he nonetheless holds out hope that he and others like him will one day be able to “reclaim” his home city. “We have to at least remind ourselves that this is possible. Never say never.”