For decades, Hong Kong was the only place in China where victims of the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square could mourn publicly at a candlelight vigil. This year, Hong Kong stands out for all the ways the 1989 massacre is being made to be forgotten.
In the days leading up to the June 4 anniversary, on Sunday, even small stores displaying repression-related items were closely monitored and received multiple visits from police. Over the weekend, thousands of officers patrolled the streets of the Causeway Bay district, where the vigil normally took place. Four people were arrested for committingacts with seditious intent”, and detained four others.
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader in the Tiananmen Square protest movement, said Hong Kong is now under the same “despotic rule” as the mainland.
“In 1989, we didn’t realize the mission of a democratic China,” said Zhou, now executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York advocacy group. “Then the Hong Kong protests faced the same crackdown, the same vilification and the erasure of memories.”
In 1989, the pro-democracy movement in China gained strong support from Hong Kong, then a British colony. After the Chinese military cleared out the students occupying Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and possibly thousands, some student leaders in Beijing were smuggled to safety via Hong Kong.
Every June 4 for three decades, Victoria Park in Hong Kong was the place where the Tiananmen Mothers, a group representing the victims of the massacre, could openly mourn and express hope for a freer China. The gatherings drew large crowds of tens of thousands, even as in the past decade some of the the younger generation in town of activists 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, anti-government protests like the ones that rocked the city in 2019 have been quashed.
The authorities have paid special attention to the commemorations of the Tiananmen massacre. They raided a museum dedicated to it, took books on repression from libraries and jailed vigil organizers.
In the past two years, authorities have cited pandemic restrictions to ban all public monuments of the crackdown. Those Covid restrictions were lifted this year, but instead of a Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park was taken over 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 jailing of the vigil organizers has raised the question of 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 clear answer, saying only that “everyone should act in accordance with the law and think about what they do, to be prepared to face the consequences.”
But Saturday’s arrests left little doubt. Among those arrested were Lau Ka-yee, from the Tiananmen Mothers, and Kwan Chun-pong, a former vigil volunteer; they carried papers saying they were on hunger strike as individual mourners. Sanmu Chan, a performance artist, shouted “Hong Kongers, don’t be afraid! Don’t forget June 4th,” when an avalanche 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 were aiming for the smallest gestures of remembrance.
Debby Chan, a former pro-democracy district official, had posted some photos on social media of electric candles she displayed in her grocery store last Tuesday. Police and representatives from three different government departments visited her several times for it, she said. But she was not intimidated.
“The more we’re not allowed to talk about it, the more they do these moves, the more I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” he said in a phone interview.
For Lit Ming Wai, a playwright, Hong Kong has a responsibility to preserve and transmit the memory of the repression, especially since it has been distorted and then erased in other parts of China.
In 2009, he co-founded a community theater group called Stage 64, which sought to make the history of June 4 more accessible to Hong Kong youth. The company’s most popular play is titled “May 35,” a euphemism for June 4 that some people on the mainland use to refer to repression.
“When we talk about June 4, we don’t just think of the Tiananmen Mothers. Even more, we are thinking of Hong Kong,” said Ms. Lit, who had been an MC at the vigils from June 4 from 2004 to 2014.
That play can no longer be performed in Hong Kong without risking prosecution. Now based in England, Ms Lit is looking to take the work abroad. The play was originally performed in Cantonese and had its Mandarin debut in Taipei on Friday.
“For us Tiananmen survivors to lose Hong Kong, this important place that protected history and truth, is very painful,” said Mr. Zhou, a former Tiananmen leader. After the June 4th raid and forced closure of a museum in Hong Kong in 2021, Mr. Zhou donated various Tiananmen artifacts to a newly established permanent exhibition in New York, including a bloodstained banner, a marquee and a mimeograph. She devoted a section to Hong Kong.
He added that it related to the wave of Hong Kong dissidents who had left the city: the pain of exile and their struggle to keep the movement alive far from home. But his presence abroad was helping to keep alive the memory of the crackdown elsewhere, she said.
“On the other hand, many Hong Kongers are now passionately participating in June 4 activities around the world, with attendance tripling in some places,” he said. “Now there are many cities starting to commemorate June 4 because of the arrival of Hong Kongers.”