As Hong Kong approaches Sunday’s 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, public commemorations of those who died on June 4, 1989, continue to be muted. The city was once one of very few places on Chinese soil where mourning events were permitted by authorities.
This year marks the second since the organiser of the city’s annual candlelight vigils, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, disbanded after several of its members were charged under the Beijing-imposed national security law in September 2021.
An Alliance disbanded
Former Alliance chairperson Lee Cheuk-yan, and ex-vice-chairs Albert Ho and Chow Hang-tung, along with the Alliance, have been accused of inciting subversion under the security law.
Chow and four other former standing committee members of the Alliance were also convicted in March after refusing to comply with a data demand from national security police issued in August 2021. Chow, Tang Ngok-kwan and Tsui Hon-kwong, were found guilty and jailed for four-and-a-half months, while Simon Leung and Chan To-wai pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three months in prison.
Chow, Tang, and Tsui have since filed an appeal against their conviction.
The Tiananmen crackdown ended months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, died when the People’s Liberation Army dispersed protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989.
The Alliance was founded by late prominent democrat Szeto Wah in May 1989 in response to pro-democracy protests that swept mainland China that year. It held five operational goals, which included ending one party dictatorship and building a democratic China.
Due to court reporting restrictions, few details have been disclosed in the Alliance’s incitement to subversion case. However, two heavily-redacted police documents have provided glimpses of how the authorities viewed the Alliance, and the crackdown.
The documents – a police investigation report into the Alliance and an application filed by the police chief to the secretary for security to issue a data request notice to the Alliance – were debated in court as part of the trial and given to reporters along with the judgement.
Significant parts of both documents were blacked out after the prosecution claimed Public Interest Immunity, and said that the disclosure of such information could hinder ongoing investigations and harm public interest.
Chow asked the court to request the prosecution disclose further information on multiple occasions throughout the trial, saying it was difficult to prove her case without knowing the identity of an unnamed organisation, a foreign group the Alliance was said to have been working as an agent for.
The police investigation report listed the background of the Alliance, including its operational goals, as well as other information detailing the social media presence and activities of the group.
The authorities also called the crackdown the “Tiananmen Incident.” Chow, who is a barrister and represented herself in court, was barred from saying “Tiananmen massacre” during the trial.
“As a quick round up, the ultimate purpose of the Hong Kong Alliance is to put an end, i.e. overthrow, CCP by furthering and/or reviving the 1989 movement through a series of activities relating to Tiananmen Incident in Hong Kong to provoke the hatred among the public towards the Central People’s Government, so as to build a so-called ‘democratic China’,” the report read.
In the application to the security chief, the Alliance was also said to be aiming to “pursue/further the 1989 pro-democracy movement (‘the 1989 movement’) by swaying the public opinion to commemorate the Tiananmen Incident and rehabilitate the 1989 movement.”
Apart from organising vigils and founding the June 4th Museum, which was raided by the police following the arrests of the Alliance’s ex-leaders, the defunct group was also said to be supporting human rights lawyers “and persons in the Mainland with intent to provoke the hatred among the public towards the Central People’s Government.”
The police chief’s application also said that the Alliance’s “rhetoric to ‘end one-party dictatorship’” might constitute an unspecified national security offence.
‘Arranged to clear the crowd’
Part of the police investigation report also included a description of the 1989 crackdown, which said “some students called for a more open a democratic government” in mourning the death of Hu Yaobang, the Chinese Communist Party’s ex general secretary.
“On 1989-06-04, the Central People’s Government arranged to clear the crowd at the Tiananmen Square. This is known as [the] Tiananmen Incident,” the report read.
The authorities also cited an editorial from state media People’s Daily published on April 26, 1989.
“The editorial effectively defined the student movement as a destabilizing anti-party revolt that should be resolutely opposed at all levels of society,” according to the report.
While Chief Executive John Lee, who was at the time the city’s secretary for security, said in October 2021 that the Alliance’s goal to end one party dictatorship amounted to intending to subvert state power, the Hong Kong government has yet to clarify whether mourning the Tiananmen crackdown is illegal since the Alliance’s disbandment.
So far, the defunct group and its former leaders are currently the only individuals linked to commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown who have been charged under the sweeping security law.
Prior to the enactment of the security legislation in June 2020, which criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, vigils organised by the Alliance were once used as an example of Hong Kong’s freedoms.
“Many people share a memory on this day. For the SAR government, this demonstrates that Hong Kong is a very free place. We respect citizens’ freedoms of speech, expression, and association, which are also protected by the Basic Law,” said former chief executive Carrie Lam on June 4, 2019, when the city’s last legal vigil took place.
With the incitement to subversion case against the Alliance moved to the High Court, where the maximum sentence is 10 years imprisonment, it is likely that the city will only have a clearer view of where the red lines are when the closely-watched trial begins.