For decades, Hong Kong was the only place in China where the victims of the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square could be publicly mourned in a candlelight vigil. This year, Hong Kong stands out for all the ways it is made to forget the 1989 massacre.
In the days leading up to the June 4 anniversary on Sunday, even small shops displaying items indicative of the crackdown were closely monitored and received multiple visits from police. Over the weekend, thousands of officers patrolled the streets of the Causeway Bay neighborhood, where the vigil was normally held. They arrested four people for committing “acts of seditious intent”, and detained four others.
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader of the Tiananmen Square protest movement, said Hong Kong is now under the same “despotic rule” as the mainland.
“In 1989, we failed to realize the mission of a democratic China,” said Mr. Zhou, now the executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group. “After that, the protests in Hong Kong faced the same repression, the same slander and erasure of memories.”
In 1989, the pro-democracy movement in China received huge support from Hong Kong, then a British colony. After the Chinese military cleared student protesters occupying Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds and possibly thousands dead, some Beijing student leaders were smuggled to safety via Hong Kong.
Every June 4, for three decades, Victoria Park in Hong Kong was the place where Tiananmen Mothers, a group representing the victims of the massacre, could openly mourn and express hope for a freer China. The rallies drew massive crowds of tens of thousands, even as over the past decade some of the city’s younger generation of activists have questioned the relevance of the mainland-focused movement as they embraced a distinct Hong Kong identity.
But since China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, virtually all forms of dissent have been criminalized in the city. Pro-democracy and anti-government protests like those that rocked the city in 2019 have died down.
The authorities have paid particular attention to the commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They raided a museum dedicated to it, removed books about the crackdown from libraries, and jailed vigil organizers.
Over the past two years, authorities have cited pandemic restrictions to ban all public commemorations of the crackdown. Those Covid restrictions were lifted this year, but instead of a Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park was occupied by a trade fair. The fair was organized by pro-Beijing groups to celebrate Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, a month before that anniversary.
The imprisonment of vigil organizers has raised questions about whether Hong Kong will ever allow residents to peacefully mourn the victims of the Tiananmen massacre.
Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee has avoided giving a straight answer, saying only that “everyone should act in accordance with the law and think about what they are doing so that they are ready to face the consequences.”
But Saturday’s arrests left little doubt. Those arrested included Lau Ka-yee, of Tiananmen mothers, and Kwan Chun-pong, a former vigil volunteer; they carried slips of paper stating that they were on hunger strike as individual mourners. Sanmu Chan, a performance artist, shouted, “Hong Kongers, don’t be afraid! Don’t forget June 4,” as a mob of officers took him away. Police also detained a man and a woman carrying chrysanthemums and wearing white clothes, symbols of mourning.
In the run-up to the anniversary, authorities targeted the smallest gestures of remembrance.
Debby Chan, a former pro-democracy district official, had posted a few photos on social media of electric candles she displayed in her grocery store last Tuesday. The police and representatives of three different government departments therefore visited her several times, she said. But she was fearless.
“The more we’re not allowed to talk about it, the more they make these moves, the more I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” she said in a phone interview.
For Lit Ming Wai, a playwright, Hong Kong has a responsibility to preserve and pass on the memory of the crackdown, especially as it has been distorted and then erased elsewhere in China.
In 2009, she co-founded a community theater group called Stage 64, which aimed to make the 4th of June history more accessible to young people in Hong Kong. The group’s most popular play is titled “May 35” – a euphemism for June 4 that some people on the mainland use to refer to the crackdown.
“When we talk about June 4, we don’t just think about the Tiananmen Mothers. In fact, we think of Hong Kong,” said Ms. Lit, who was MC from 2004 to 2014 at the June 4 vigils.
That piece can no longer be performed in Hong Kong without risking prosecution. Now based in England, Mrs. Lit tries to take the play abroad. The play was originally performed in Cantonese and made its debut in Mandarin in Taipei on Friday.
“For us Tiananmen survivors, losing Hong Kong – this very important place that protected history and truth – is very painful,” said Mr. Zhou, the former leader of Tiananmen. Following the raid and forced closure of a museum in Hong Kong on June 4, 2021, Mr. Zhou donated several Tiananmen artifacts to a newly established permanent exhibition in New York, including a blood-stained banner, tent, and mimeograph machine. A section was devoted to Hong Kong.
He added that he was dealing with the wave of dissidents from Hong Kong who had left the city: the pain of exile and their struggle to keep the movement alive while away from home. But their presence abroad helped to keep the memory of the crackdown alive elsewhere, he said.
“On the other hand, many Hong Kongers are now passionately participating in June 4 activities around the world, tripling the number of visitors in some places,” he said. “There are now many cities that are starting to commemorate June 4 because of the arrival of Hong Kongers.”