Dissent increasingly smothered as China cracks down on public commemorations
HONG KONG — For years, China has quashed any discussion on the mainland of its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, nearly erasing what happened from the collective consciousness. Now it may be Hong Kong’s turn, as China’s ruling Communist Party pulls the city more directly into its orbit.
The semi-autonomous territories of Hong Kong and nearby Macao were for years the last places on Chinese soil allowed to publicly mark the events of June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on student-led protesters in a crackdown that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead.
Before last year, tens of thousands gathered annually in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, lighting candles and singing songs to remember the victims. But authorities, citing the coronavirus pandemic, banned the vigil for the second straight year and, on the morning of Friday’s anniversary, arrested an organizer of it. A temporary museum dedicated to the event also suddenly closed this week, after authorities investigated it for lacking the necessary licenses to hold a public exhibition.
Hong Kong’s security minister warned residents last week against taking part in unauthorized assemblies.
In mainland China, younger generations have grown up with little knowledge of or debate about the crackdown, but the efforts to suppress commemorations in Hong Kong reflect another turn of the screw in Beijing’s ever-tightening control over Hong Kong following massive anti-government protests in 2019. Those demonstrations evolved into months of sometimes violent clashes between smaller groups of protesters and police. And they have led to a broader crackdown on dissent in the former British colony, which was long an oasis of capitalism and democracy and was promised that it would largely maintain its freedoms for 50 years when it was returned to China in 1997.
Since the protests, China has imposed a sweeping national security law aimed in part at stiffening the penalties for the actions that protesters engaged in, and authorities have sought to arrest nearly all of the city’s outspoken and prominent pro-democracy figures. Most are either behind bars or have fled the city.
Despite the restrictions this year, there are calls for Hong Kongers to remember the 1989 crackdown in private, with vigil organizers calling on residents to light a candle at 8 p.m. Friday no matter where they are.
Online calls circulating on social media also urged residents to dress in black on Friday. Local newspaper Ming Pao last week published an article suggesting that residents write the numbers six and four on their light switches — a nod to the June 4 date — so each flip of the switch is also an act of remembrance.
For decades, Chan Kin Wing has regularly attended the vigil in Hong Kong.
“I was lucky to have been born in Hong Kong. If I had been born on the mainland, I could have been one of the students in Tiananmen Square that day,” said Chan, whose parents had fled to Hong Kong from the mainland in the 1960s.