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Hong Kong police detain a  Tiananmen Square protestor wearing a COVID mask.
Police detain a man for shining a light near the entrance to Victoria Park in Hong Kong. Commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre have been banned since 2021. AP Photo/Louise Delmotte

Hong Kong: crackdown on vigils to commemorate 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre show Beijing’s fear of the power of memory

For the past 34 years, the height of “politically sensitive periods” for the Chinese government invariably falls around the same day: June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. And, as use of the internet has become increasingly ubiquitous in China, online surveillance and censorship go into overdrive during this period.

On June 4 1989, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed civilians staging a pro-democracy protest in the centre of Beijing. The number of deaths is still not confirmed, as it remains a taboo subject. But estimates vary from several hundred to several thousand. A secret diplomatic cable from the then British ambassador, Sir Alan Donald, citing a source within China’s State Council, claimed that at least 10,000 people were killed.

The massacre and oppression that followed have become the most sensitive and significant subject over which the Communist Party endeavours to have total control in China. The journalist Louisa Lim’s book The People’s Republic of Amnesia reveals the extraordinary determination and capacity the state possesses to rewrite history, erase public memories and silence dissent.

But despite the sweeping repression on the mainland, Hong Kong – until recently – stood out as a free “information enclave”. It was the only place on Chinese territory not to have forgotten the events of June 4 1989. Every year in Victoria Park on the night of June 4, come rain or shine, a candlelit vigil to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen massacre has been attended by tens of thousands of people – often more than 100,000.

Organised by a grassroots NGO, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China (Hong Kong Alliance), this became one of few defiant acts and symbols of freedom on Chinese-controlled soil. At the eighth vigil in 1997, a 26-foot-tall sculpture depicting a mass of distorted human bodies, the Pillar of Shame by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, was exhibited on Victoria Park before moving to the University of Hong Kong campus.

In 2014, the Hong Kong Alliance opened the June 4th Museum to document and memorialise the horrific events of that day in Beijing.

Over the years the annual vigil, the sculpture and the museum kept these memories alive. Thus, as the BBC World Service journalist Grace Tsoi wrote in 2021, Hong Kong took pride in becoming the “conscience of China”, and the mass vigil grew to be part of the collective identity of the Hong Kong people.

But all this, however, suffered a fatal blow in 2020. The authorities used the convenient excuse of COVID restrictions to ban the annual vigil in Victoria Park. In September 2021, the Hong Kong police raided the June 4 Museum following the arrest of the activist and barrister Chow Hang Tung, the vice-chairwoman of Hong Kong Alliance. She was later sentenced to 15 months in prison for incitement to attend the banned vigil. The Hong Kong Alliance was disbanded under pressure from the authorities. In December 2021, the Pillar of Shame was removed by the police.

Free speech in Hong Kong

These drastic crackdowns on the June 4 remembrance events and their organisers need to be understood in the broader context of the rapidly deteriorating situation in terms of freedom of speech and assembly, the crumbling civil society and rule of law in Hong Kong since the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020.

Read more: Hong Kong: how China's new national security law subverts the territory's cherished rule of law

Human rights groups have consistently argued that the law was imposed by Beijing to silence dissent following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest in 2019. But the authorities claim the law is necessary to bring stability to the city.

Hong Kong police wearing COVID masks stand guard to prevent a pro-democracy vigil in the centre of Hong Kong June 4 2023.
Police stand guard in a shopping area near Victoria Park in Hong Kong to prevent a prodemocracy vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4 1989. EPA-EFE/Bertha Wang

A wide range of international media have reported that since the law came into force, pro-democracy activists, media outlets and individuals critical of the government or the central authorities in Beijing have been targeted and hundreds arrested.

Among them were some of the most outspoken and prominent pro-democracy figures, such as the 71-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai, along with a group of 47 legislators, politicians and activists.

Read more: Hong Kong's press freedom is on life support thanks to the new security law

According to the human rights group Hong Kong Democracy Council: “Hong Kong has one of fastest growing populations of political prisoners in the world”. The number has increased from “only a handful” when mass political protests began in June 2019 to more than 1,000 in less than three years. Human rights scholars and observers warn of “China’s attempts to dissolve civil society in Hong Kong”.

The power of memory

Despite the grave situation in Hong Kong, memories of the Tiananmen protests – a symbol of the public struggle for democracy and liberty – continue to be kindled overseas. In August 2021, the online June 4th museum was opened to tell the stories of those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In May 2023, a replica of the Pillar of Shame“ sculpture was erected in Berlin.

As recently as June 2, the June 4th Memorial Museum was opened in New York by activists overseas, ahead of the anniversary. And, although the Victoria Park vigil has been banned, vigils have now expanded globally in many cities in Europe, North America, Australia, Korea and Japan, with the biggest one in Taiwan.

But how significant are these acts in the face of the intransigent repression of the Beijing regime? According to the former Czech president Václav Havel, when people are living in truth under a dictatorship, they pose a fundamental threat to the political system which is built on lies. Lies, perhaps best exemplified by a carnival held by pro-Beijing groups in Victoria Park on June 4, while 23 people were detained by police for trying to protest.

Keeping the memories of the Tiananmen protests and massacre alive is one of the most potent ways for the Chinese – including the Hong Kong people – to live in truth and show their defiance to the party-state. This is what Havel called the ”power of the powerless“. And it is a power we should not underestimate.

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