Sunday’s anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown is the first since Hong Kong lifted Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. In recent years, the authorities cited anti-epidemic measures as the reason to ban the annual candlelight commemoration in Victoria Park. But, despite arrests on Saturday, there remains no official word on whether a public vigil or commemoration would be legal in the wake of the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Before the pandemic and the implementation of the security law on June 30, 2020, Hong Kong – for decades – was one of very few places on Chinese soil that permitted public mourning of the crackdown, even though top officials had become more tight-lipped about the historical event.
The Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 1989, 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.
The Victoria Park vigils were seen as a test of Hong Kong’s freedoms under its post-Handover semi-autonomous status, and objections to them in recent years focused not on their legality but on the necessity of recalling the past.
Even then-chief executive Carrie Lam said they were “proof that Hong Kong is a free place,” following the last, legal, gathering in 2019.
In addition, the vigil organiser – the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China – has been charged under the security law, leaving many unsure whether mourning the crackdown would breach the sweeping legislation. On this question, top Hong Kong officials have for weeks avoided giving a direct answer.
‘Everybody should act according to the law’
Chief Executive John Lee said on Tuesday that the authorities would deal with “any activities that take place in Hong Kong” in accordance with the law, and individuals must act in accordance with the law.
However, the chief executive still did not give a yes-no answer as to whether the very act of peacefully commemorating Tiananmen victims is a breach of the city’s laws, when pushed by HKFP.
“For any activity that contradicts the law, of course the police will have to take action. And the police will take action resolutely, particularly in regard to public order activities. Everybody should act in accordance with the law and think of what they do, so as to be ready to face the consequences,” Lee said.
His ambiguous answers echoed those of the secretary for security and secretary for justice.
‘We will take decisive action’
Chris Tang, the security chief, did not say definitively whether those commemorating victims of the crackdown would risk legal consequences. However, he warned that unidentified individuals intended to harm national security.
The security legislation – which criminalised subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism – was inserted directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. The authorities say it has restored stability to the city, but critics claim it has led to an erosion of freedoms.
“It will be a special occasion in a few days’ time. Many people will use this special occasion to commit acts endangering national security, such as promoting Hong Kong independence and intending to commit subversion,” Tang said on Monday.
“However, I want to tell these people that if you commit these acts, we will definitely take decisive action and arrest you, and will prosecute you if there is evidence. You will not get lucky,” he added.
Will not answer ‘hypothetical questions’
Justice minister Paul Lam said last Sunday that he would not answer “hypothetical questions” about the legality of Tiananmen commemorations, but people should be aware of the need to obey the law.
Officials had also faced questioned in recent years about whether June 4 commemorations were legal.
Lee, when he was secretary for security, said in 2021 that the police chief considered factors including social-distancing restrictions, public safety and public order when rejecting an application to hold a vigil.
The then-security chief said that he “would not discuss whether some action would be in violation of a certain law,” but it would be subversion if anyone attempted to overturn the “fundamental system” as prescribed by China’s constitution.
‘Why is it problematic?’
Ronny Tong, a barrister and member of government advisory body the Executive Council, said on May 27 that mourning the anniversary would not be an issue if it did not involve any illegal activities or criminal intent.
Tong, when asked whether it would be illegal for people to mourn victims of the crackdown, said, “why is it problematic?” InMedia reported.
“In general, I cannot see any problem with it, sorry.”
On May 15, current security chief Tang said police had yet to receive any application to hold public Tiananmen commemorations. However, some former pro-democracy District Councillors said they had received calls from the authorities asking whether they planned to hold any events.
Despite ambiguous answers about the law from top officials, the police apprehended eight people in Causeway Bay on the eve on the Tiananmen anniversary on Saturday. The force later confirmed that four arrests had been linked to alleged sedition and public disorder.
Two well-known Tiananmen crackdown activists were among those apprehended, including Lau Ka-yee, a member of activist group Tiananmen Mothers. She was seen wearing a t-shirt that was printed with a candle and the Chinese word for “truth.” Lau had put red tape over her mouth before she was taken away by the police.
The police said in a statement on Saturday that the arrests were made after they had found that individuals were displaying “protest items with seditious words” and committing disorderly conduct in a public place.
Following the banned 2020 vigil, authorities prosecuted 24 top democrats under the Public Order Ordinance. The gathering took place before the security law came into force.
High-profile figures including Joshua Wong, media mogul Jimmy Lai, and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung were among those who served prison terms.
Then-district court judge Amanda Woodcock said when sentencing 12 of the democrats charged that she had not considered “the common purpose of the assembly, nor the politics, beliefs, stance and opinions” of the defendants.
“I am aware that yearly there is an event in Victoria Park to mark June 4 but under the circumstances, the organisers had other alternatives and creative options to consider, such as an interactive online vigil… I consider a deterrent and punitive sentence appropriate. Thankfully, no violence erupted within the crowds but the defendants exhibited a blatant disregard of another serious risk to the entire community.”
‘Which laws prohibit public commemorations?’
With Covid-19 no longer seen as a significant health concern, Chan Po-ying, chairperson of the League of Social Democrats, said authorities should explain how they would view such commemorations.
“Previously they made arrests because of the illegal assemblies…I cannot see what laws can prohibit people from holding commemorative events in different forms,” Chan told HKFP.
“Citizens of course will follow their habits and laws; the government has to explain if there is any new interpretation and understanding [of the events], or how to interpret the law. But I cannot see how some personal, long-running events could be problematic.”
Earlier this week, HSBC closed bank accounts linked to the League of Social Democrats without giving an explanation.