Thousands of people gathered in the evening of June 4 in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to hold a vigil for those killed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, ignoring police orders to stay at home.
Candles were lit at 6:30 p.m. local time, with increasing numbers of people joining the event’s initial participants as night fell. The vigil officially started at 8:00 p.m., with a moment of silence at 8:09.
People shouted slogans such as “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” “Vindicate June 4,” “End One-Party Dictatorship,” and “Opposition Against the National Security Law,” referring to new legislation recently imposed by Beijing.
Many also waved placards with the words “Heaven Will Destroy the Chinese Communist Party,” while others sang Glory to Hong Kong, the unofficial anthem of the city’s democracy movement that started last spring.
Thirty-one years ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ordered martial law troops to suppress student protesters demonstrating in Tiananmen Square, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people on the night of June 3 and June 4. The Tiananmen massacre brought a brutal end to weeks of demonstrations petitioning the CCP for greater democracy and transparency, and halted the political reforms advocated by some Chinese officials.
The events of 1989 have long resonated with the people of Hong Kong. Then under British colonial rule, Hongkongers voiced strong support for the Chinese democratic movement. On May 21, 1989, more than 1.5 million people marched through Hong Kong to back the protests in mainland China — the largest gathering in Hong Kong history until the 2019 anti-extradition movement.
After the Tiananmen massacre, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China has held vigil events every year since 1990.
Typically, attendance runs in the tens of thousands, but the turnout this year was dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants took care to maintain social distancing, keeping the crowd thin while wearing face masks. The vigil-goers dispersed starting around 8:45 p.m.
Freedom on the brink
The annual vigil to mourn the Tiananmen Square massacre is significant not only as a way to remember the victims of communism in mainland China, but it also serves as an important symbol of the ongoing struggle of millions of Hongkongers for full democracy in their own city.
The police ban, announced June 1, cited social distancing restrictions in place to guard against the pandemic. But with many Hongkongers fearing the city’s imminent loss of autonomy to the CCP, this year’s Tiananmen anniversary weighs particularly heavy.
According to a June 3 article by the Hong Kong Free Press: “There are fears the vigil in Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park … may never happen again in light of the looming national security law,” for which a draft resolution was approved by China’s nominal parliament, the National People’s Congress, on May 28.
Hong Kong has been administered as a special region in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1997, when the city reverted from British colonial rule. Despite the PRC’s promises to allow Hong Kong to maintain separate governance until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” framework, the CCP regime has been steadily pushing policies in the city that threaten its Western-style rule of law and human rights.
Last spring, Hongkongers began protesting a controversial extradition bill proposed by Hong Kong’s government, which is heavily stacked with Communist Party-approved officials. Millions of people have turned out for the demonstrations, the largest of which topped 2 million, to stop the legislation, fearing that it would allow Beijing to subject Hongkongers to trial in mainland courts.
While the extradition law was abandoned later in the year, widespread reports of police brutality and suspicious “suicides” have galvanized the movement, which calls for the implementation of five major demands, including the right for Hongkongers to elect their own chief executive.
The strength of anti-Beijing sentiment among Hong Kong’s 7 million people manifested in the Hong Kong district elections held last November, when pan-democrat candidates scored a landslide victory against pro-CCP politicians, winning more than 80 percent of the votes.
Since then, the CCP has stepped up its attempts to curtail Hongkongers’ ability to protest.
When implemented, the NPC Hong Kong national security law will spell the de facto end of the city’s autonomy, as it bans “actions or activities” considered subversive or deemed to be the result of “foreign interference.” The CCP uses similar laws to prosecute dissidents in mainland China.
The NPC Hong Kong law runs in tandem with Article 23 in the city’s Basic Law. Both deal with national security regulation, but Article 23 has never been legislated due to the public outcry it caused when the Hong Kong authorities attempted to do so in 2003.
In recent months, the Hong Kong government and Beijing have made moves suggesting that they are preparing to activate Article 23 before September, when the elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council are scheduled.
On May 29, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters that the national security law was necessary to protect the city against “Hong Kong independence movements” and “foreign interference,” and described the protests of the previous year as “riots.”
“The threat to national security in Hong Kong is constantly rising,” Lam said. “We can look back over this past year and see that Hong Kong has undergone every kind of riot, which has been widely reported.”
In recent months, the Hong Kong and PRC authorities have stepped up repression in the city, with several pro-democracy politicians jailed, and mainland Chinese paramilitary police stationed in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong resists
The anti-extradition protests, as well as the 2014 Occupy Central movement in which tens of thousands, mostly students, protested for universal suffrage, have done much to bring Hongkongers together and rally them in the face of communist encroachment.
“If you compare what happened in 1989 and now, it’s the same,” Lee Cheuk-yan, the union leader who heads the Alliance organizing the Tiananmen vigils, told the Wall Street Journal. “At stake today is “the complete destruction of Hong Kong. Now, we are facing this regime, just as the people of China faced the regime back in ’89.”
According to Radio Free Asia, Lee’s group didn’t expect so many people to show up for this year’s event. They had planned for a short livestream of a few minutes, while others could participate online in their homes. Instead, the participants filled up six football pitches.
Uniformed and plainclothes police at the rally stood by and watched, but Lee, 63, is one of nearly 10,000 other Hongkongers who have been arrested for their involvement with the protests. In addition, Lee was arrested in 1989 when he traveled to Beijing to support the mainland protesters.
A participant surnamed Yip told RFA that the ongoing protests had made the Hong Kong youth generation more aware of the 1989 demonstrations in China. “Not everyone in our generation knew what happened on June 4, 1989, but we came to learn about it through the anti-extradition movement,” Yip said. “Actually, we are the same as the 1989 democracy activists, because we are fighting for democracy too.”
“I think most Hong Kong people have to resist. We have to fight for something that Hong Kong people deserve to have,” a woman working as an accountant told the Hong Kong Free Press. “In the past year, Hong Kong sacrificed a lot.”
Speaking with journalists, Lee Cheuk-yan said that the Alliance will continue the vigils even if they are banned by the CCP and its Hong Kong proxies.
“This is an international front for Hong Kong to show to the world that though China is totally dark and brainwashing their own people, in Hong Kong, we still will light our candles for those who sacrificed [their lives] back in the ’89 democracy movement”, he said.
“We call upon the people of Hong Kong to light a candle with us next year on June 4, and we will continue,” Lee said. “We will fight on, and we will let the world know we Hong Kong people will not give up our freedom.”