Honouring lost lives with white flowers, lit candles, evocative songs and speeches has long been part of the annual Tiananmen Square vigil at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. But none of that can happen at this year’s anniversary.
The cancellation of the event for the first time in 30 years has upset political exiles, the event’s organisers and faithful participants who have decried the move, saying the only large-scale public gathering on Chinese soil to remember the crackdown, a taboo subject in the country’s recent history, risks being permanently scrubbed from the political calendar.
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests who now lives in exile in the United States, told the Post he was distressed to learn that the city’s police had banned this year’s vigil because of social-distancing rules in place over the Covid-19 pandemic.
Organiser of Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong urges would-be participants to adopt protesters’ ‘be water’ strategy
“The generation of 1989 and those who experienced the protests in person have always yearned for and paid close attention to the candlelight vigil in Hong Kong, no matter where we are, for 30 years. It means a lot to us,” the 52-year-old said.
“When the Communist Party tried everything to obliterate the memory of the crackdown, candles in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park continued to be held up, and comforted sufferers. It is so precious that no other commemoration can replace it.”
Since 1990, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China has held the vigil in remembrance of the crackdown ordered by Beijing on June 4, 1989 to end a weeks-long, student-led democracy protest.
When the Communist Party tried everything to obliterate the memory of the crackdown, candles in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park continued to be held up
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests
The gathering in Victoria Park, an annual ritual of sombre tribute to the struggle of the students, was attended by more than 180,000 people last year.
In their letter of objection to this year’s vigil, police cited the Hong Kong government’s prohibition of public gatherings of more than eight people, which was on Tuesday extended to June 18, and said any large public assemblies would increase the risk of infection in the city.
The vigil’s organisers have called on the public to join an online gathering on Thursday, and to light candles across the city. They say at least 100 street booths will be set up that afternoon to distribute candles, with the help of opposition lawmakers and district councillors.
Members of the alliance still plan to go to Victoria Park in groups of eight, and have encouraged people to join the vigil as individuals in districts across the city.
“Victoria Park is a public open space and some people will still go,” alliance secretary Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong said. “We have confidence in Hongkongers that they will observe social-distancing rules and the ban on gatherings.”
The group was convinced banning the vigil was done for political reasons, believing its stated goals – which include rehabilitating the 1989 pro-democracy movement, ending one-party dictatorship and building a democratic China – were especially sensitive subjects this year.
China, already in a trade and technology war with the United States, has been caught up in escalating tensions over its handling of the virus and now Hong Kong.
The vigil is under a fresh spotlight this year as Beijing moves forward with a tailor-made national security law for Hong Kong. The law, which will prohibit acts of subversion, secession, terrorism or conspiring with foreign influences in the city, prompted the US to declare it was revoking Hong Kong’s special trading status and other privileges with America.
People who cannot forget: the Tiananmen crackdown and lives it ruined – survivors interviewed by poet Liao Yiwu
Zhou, the former student leader, dismissed the Victoria Park vigil ban as yet another sign of China’s lack of democracy.
“It is showing the world that the regime never changed in the past 30 years,” he said. “The international community allowed it to continue to exist after the 1989 crackdown, which eventually took away the basic protection that Hong Kong enjoys.”
Lee Cheuk-yan, who chairs the alliance, recalled there were similar doubts whether the vigil could continue after 1997, when the city was returned to Chinese rule, and in 2003, when the local government tried to enact its own national security law.
“In 1997, people asked us if that will be the last one. And in 2003 people asked whether this will be the last one,” he said. “This year, on the 31st anniversary [of the crackdown], without even having the national security law in place, it was banned by the police in the name of the virus.”
A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Program released on Tuesday found that the popularity rating of the alliance had dropped slightly from last year.
More than 40 per cent of the 1,001 local respondents said the alliance should not be disbanded, the lowest percentage since 2015, while 66 per cent said the Chinese government did the wrong thing in the 1989 crackdown.
The Tiananmen Square incident remains a taboo subject in China, and any mention of the June 4 incident is censored on Chinese social media. An official death toll has never been released.
In Hong Kong, Democratic Party veteran Cheung Man-kwong, a key member of the alliance, said the iconic vigil had witnessed two major declines there over the past three decades.
Turnout had shrunk to only tens of thousands a few years after the crackdown happened, he recalled, but the situation gradually improved after many teachers began taking their students to the vigil in the 1990s.
The second challenge was the rise of localism in the wake of the 2014 Occupy movement for universal suffrage, he said, as young people slammed the vigil as “ritualistic” and argued that they should not be burdened with helping achieve democratic change on the mainland, insisting their focus should be on Hong Kong.
Cheung said the alliance was determined to call on the public to light candles across the city as they did not want to let their followers down. “Many of them are seniors who have attended the vigils for 30 years,” he said.
Tsoi, the alliance’s secretary, said he was disappointed the vigil had been called off.
“I would like to say sorry to Hongkongers and our supporters,” he said, adding that the event was “irreplaceable”, and that long-time attendees would miss joining the peaceful gathering.
“If it weren’t for Hong Kong and the annual vigil held by the alliance, no one would remember what June 4 is about. We at least kept the topic alive,” Tsoi said.
“Hong Kong is the only place where we could still gather a significant number of people for 30 years, as a form of protesting. It could last all these years because of the people of Hong Kong.”
As long as people’s hearts are there, the candles in Victoria Park will be lit up
Chow Hang-tung, vice-chairwoman of the alliance
Tsoi, who was a leader in the movement of the city’s university students to support their protesting peers in Beijing, said his own memory of the crackdown remained undimmed by time.
“I followed the situation in Beijing through the television from the evening of June 3, 1989 to the early morning on June 4. I can never forget …
“For those who were sacrificed in the movement, I promised myself that I would fight for democracy in China. This belief remains important to me to this day.”
Chow Hang-tung, 35, vice-chairwoman of the alliance, said her parents had brought her to the vigil in Victoria Park since she was in primary school.
“I didn’t understand a lot, but the strong emotions planted a seed in my heart,” she said.
When she studied at the University of Cambridge in England, she initiated a vigil on the campus with other Hongkongers, hoping to spread the information to students from the mainland.
Since Chow returned to Hong Kong in 2010, she has helped out with the gathering. Asked if she feared the new national security law would ban such gatherings, Chow vowed that it would continue.
“It is up to us but not the authorities. As long as people’s hearts are there, the candles in Victoria Park will be lit up,” she said.
Retiree Kelvin Chiu, in his 60s, and his wife have attended the vigil in Victoria Park every year since 1990. He said it was a pity the vigil would be banned for the first time, but he found it understandable given the pandemic.
“It is OK, the form is not the key and we don’t need to be too stubborn about it. We can ‘be water’, commemorate the victims in other forms, for example, online,” he said, referring to the strategy used by anti-government protesters to continue their actions despite obstruction or opposition.
Describing himself as a “peaceful protester”, Chiu said he had to thank youngsters in the city who fought to pursue democracy.
Alliance secretary Tsoi said he hoped Hongkongers could return to Victoria Park for future vigils. “No matter whether the online vigil will succeed this year, I hope to return [to the park] in the future if we can.”
And former student leader Zhou still has an eye on the future. “My biggest hope is that China will become democratic. I hope the candlelight will return to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the centre of political power in China, to remember those who were sacrificed.”
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