The rally, held every year since the 1989 attack on anti-democracy demonstrations in China, has been banned for fear of the coronavirus, a move considered political in a city where infections fall on a handful every month.
Early Thursday night, hundreds and then thousands of people defied orders, as well as signs and fences around Victoria Park, to occupy two large football fields where a rally is traditionally held. Although the numbers have been declining in previous years, and the usually well-organized memorial had a rather chaotic improvised feel, they are by no means negligible, which was a major sign of defiance of Beijing.
Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer and former MP, led the crowd in shouts of “the end of one-party rule” and “democracy for China!”
Others chanted slogans from last year’s anti-government protests, including “fighting for freedom, along with Hong Kong” and more recent restraint, “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”
Those slogans could be illegal in the near future, as Beijing imposes the imposition of a draconian national security law that bans sedition, secession and separatism. Similar laws have been used to crack down on dissidents and pro-democracy activists in China.
That forthcoming law is currently being prepared in Beijing and will automatically be imposed in Hong Kong through a rarely used constitutional shelter, bypassing city legislation. The law hung over this year’s Tiananmen Memorial even before the event was officially banned, as both opposition and pro-government figures predicted similar gatherings could be illegal in the future.
Hong Kong has long been the only place on Chinese soil where a mass commemoration against June 4 is being held. That fact is a litmus test for the city’s autonomy from China, which has shrunk significantly in recent years and culminated in a national security law, which Beijing said was needed to prevent a series of violent riots recorded last year.
That unrest continued after Hong Kong emerged from the coronavirus crisis and social distance regulations eased. But police responded to earlier protests in huge numbers and used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse several rallies in recent weeks.
There was a complete reversal in tactics on Thursday, as police were largely left without sight as several thousand people ignored fences and signs to gather illegally in Victoria Park. It was a striking contrast, perhaps deliberate, to the protests in the U.S., which Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam pointed out on Tuesday to accuse her critics in Washington of “double standards”.
The crowds began to disperse soon after 8 p.m. by local time, after lighting candles and a moment of silence to remember the hundreds, perhaps thousands, killed in the abyss of Tiananmen.
At its peak, the crowd spread to two football fields, and while there were significantly bigger shortcomings than in previous years, it was a major indicator of defiance in a city that in recent weeks seemed somewhat shocked by national security law news.
The next big test for both the democratic movement and the authorities will be as early as next week, which sees two key anniversaries of last year’s protest movement.
About a million people marched against the extradition law with China on June 9, 2019, while three days later protesters blocked the city’s legislature and clashed with police to prevent the law from being passed. It was finally withdrawn in September 2019, when the anti-government movement grew significantly, whose goals extended beyond a single bill.