“It was a time of hope,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former Hong Kong MP. At the time, the city had lasted eight years since the surrender from British to Chinese control, and there was a sense that young protesters across the border could change China for the better.
“Many Hong Kongers thought we were really hanging on to our heads in 1997. But young people in China demanded democracy, and we thought that if they achieved that, it meant Hong Kong would not have to live under an authoritarian regime.”
However, that hope became despair as the People’s Liberation Army overthrew the June 4 protests. An official death toll has never been published, but human rights groups estimate hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Protests and struggles against the authorities in Tiananmen were erased from books on Chinese history, censored and controlled, organizers expelled or arrested, and relatives of those killed were kept under strict surveillance.
Speaking to reporters after the ban was announced, Lee said police were “suppressing our vigil under the pretext of enforcing the ban on gatherings.”
The law criminalizes secession, sedation, and subversion. It also allows Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong for the first time – fearing for many in the city that PLA members could be deployed to the streets if protests continue.
A historical moment
Tiananmen had an indelible effect on Hong Kong politics. Rallies were held in solidarity with democracy protesters ahead of the massacre, and many activists in the city traveled north to offer help and support.
In the eight years since Tiananmen, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong moved abroad, although many returned soon after the handover, after fears of devastation did not subside and the city enjoyed the economic prosperity of its new rulers. Most of these returnees, however, came with foreign passports in their back pockets, but are willing to run away again if things go negative.
In the two decades of Chinese rule, Tiananmen’s memory has always been something that separated Hong Kong, a litmus test of whether city freedoms and autonomy are still protected.
It has also served as an incubator for a variety of political talent, often among the first demonstrations attended by many Hong Kongers. Many activists, including former leaders of the umbrella movement Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, spoke about the effect of the June 4 memorial in their own political awakening.
“If there are public gatherings that will express their views and feelings about a particular historical incident, we fully respect those views,” she said.
Asked this week whether the rally would be banned under the new national security law, Lam said: “We do not have a draft law at the moment. We can resolve it later.”
In a statement on the law last week, the Hong Kong Alliance warned that it was “like a knife in the neck to all Hong Kong residents”.
“Even if you cut just a few, it threatens the freedom of all 7 million,” the group noted. “It’s the implementation of the rule of fear in Hong Kong.”
CNN’s Chermaine Lee contributed to the reporting.