Tiananmen Square Massacre: Hong Kong marks the anniversary perhaps for the last time

“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.

Police on Monday denied permission for this year’s rally, citing ongoing restrictions on mass gatherings related to the coronavirus pandemic. For many in the democratic opposition, the justification is hollow: organizers have said they will work with authorities to ensure a safe and socially distant gathering, and meanwhile the city’s shopping districts, subway and public parks have been open for weeks with little problem.

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 police decision carries the added weight that many had already feared this week it could be the last chance to freely mark the anniversary. Last month, China announced it would impose a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, in response to widespread and often violent anti-government unrest last year.

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.

The Hong Kong Alliance for the Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a group co-founded by Lee that has organized the Tiananmen Vigil every year since 1990, he warned that this could be banned under the new law, pointing to his previous support for activists convicted under similar national security laws in China and long-standing opposition to “one-party dictatorship.”
There is good reason to believe that vigils will be banned in the future. Last month, CY Leung, a former city executive director and senior member of the Chinese government’s advisory body, predicted just as much, while the commemoration in neighboring Macau – which already has a national book security law – is also underway they were blocked by the authorities.

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.

After the attack, “Operation Yellow Bird“helped smuggle protest organizers into Beijing and other people at risk of arrest into the city, still British territory. About 500 people were pulled from China, according to the Hong Kong Alliance, including student protesters like Wu’er Kaixi, who reportedly debated about Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng in the midst of demonstrations.
In the years following the collapse, pressure increased on the British to do more to protect Hong Kong under Chinese direct rule, and in 1994, then-Governor Chris Patten first held elections to the city’s parliament in a completely democratic way – a move not approved by London and met with rage in Beijing.
The Legislative Council elected the following year was the first and only time that parliament had a democratic majority. It was also dissolved to replace by a body appointed in Beijing as soon as Chinese control of the city takes effect.

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.

The renewed exodus may be on the horizon thanks to a new national security law. Following the announcement from China, the United Kingdom moved to extend some rights for holders of British national (overseas) passports, of which there are about 300,000 in Hong Kong and up to 3 million citizens born in the city before 1997 who could apply. London said that if the law continues, BNO owners will be granted a 12-month stay in the UK, an increase of 6 months, which will give them a potential path to British citizenship.

What’s next?

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.

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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.

Last year, the mayor, Carrie Lam, pointed to the annual meeting as proof that “Hong Kong is a very free society.”

“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.”

Hong Kong officials have insisted that concerns about the legislation are being exaggerated and that only a handful of people will apply to new violations of sedation, subversion and secession, even though they acknowledge that they are largely in the dark over Beijing plans.

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.”

For now, they still defy that fear, even if coronavirus restrictions have ruined plans for a mass rally. Smaller gatherings will be organized throughout the city, and the Alliance has invited all residents light candles at 8pm, holding them in front of windows to recreate a sea of ​​light that has become a common image of the annual vigil in Victoria Park.
“Will Hong Kongers be able to keep an eye on next year? The year is an eternity in politics, and predictions are dangerous,” wrote Chinese scientist Jerome Cohen. this week“However, unless an unexpected change of leadership is expected in Beijing, it certainly seems likely, especially in light of the upcoming (National Security Act), that Hong Kong could follow Macao in the amnesia that has long been forced ashore.” .

CNN’s Chermaine Lee contributed to the reporting.

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