Hong Kong protesters plan to commemorate the 1989 military assault on activists in Tiananmen Square after authorities banned a mass vigil for the first time in three decades, citing virus-related social distancing measures.
The unprecedented ban left activists and pro-democracy campaigners in the city planning a range of alternative events, from online vigils and candle distribution across the city to smaller rallies, including in front of the Legislative Council. One group is encouraging people to post photos and comments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram around 8 p.m. using the hashtag “#6431truth,” a reference to the massacre 31 years ago on June 4.
Pro-democracy lawmakers on Thursday asked if they could mark the anniversary in the Legislative Council chamber. They were refused by the presiding official, then stood and held a moment of silence anyway. Soon after, they chanted “Don’t forget June 4!” while a pro-government politician spoke.
There was little protest action by mid-afternoon. Police were ready to deploy 2,000 officers Thursday evening, local Cable TV reported, citing sources. It also said police would not try not to intervene as long as there were no road blockages. Television footage showed metal barricades surrounding the football field at central Victoria Park, where the annual vigil is usually held.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, whose ruling party views the democratically run island as de facto independent of China, also commemorated the anniversary.
“Around the world, there are 365 days in a year. Yet in China, one of those days is purposely forgotten each year,” Tsai tweeted. “In Taiwan, there were once days missing from our calendar, but we’ve worked to bring them to light. I hope one day China can say the same.”
Hong Kong is facing renewed tensions following months of unprecedented pro-democracy protests that kicked off soon after last June’s vigil. Demonstrations have again increased in recent weeks as China announced that it would impose sweeping national security legislation on the city, raising concerns about whether it would maintain key freedoms from the mainland.
The city’s legislature on Thursday passed a controversial bill that will make disrespecting China’s national anthem illegal and has also fueled protesters’ anger.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed administration has said the rally can’t go forward because of a ban on gatherings of more than eight people as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But activists, opposition politicians and critics have called it a deliberate attempt to stifle free speech, pointing out that the virus is mostly under control in the city and that larger groups regularly gather in public without any issues from the authorities.
For the past 30 years, residents of the semi-autonomous city have held a candlelight vigil that draws tens of thousands of attendees for an annual memorial to those who lost their lives when China’s leadership ordered troops to fire on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s central square and the nearby streets. Estimates of the dead have ranged from hundreds to thousands: there’s never been an independent investigation.
Last year’s vigil drew more than 180,000 participants to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, according to the organizers — the largest turnout since the vigils began in 1990. Police downplayed that figure, saying 37,000 attended at its peak.
The move to prevent the vigil also comes at a time when tensions are rising between the U.S. and China on fronts ranging from eroding freedoms in Hong Kong to 5G technology, trade issues and responsibility for the pandemic.
China’s surprise move to introduce new rules outlawing subversion, sedition, secession and foreign influence in the financial hub has prompted concern from foreign governments and threats by the U.S. to retaliate — including revoking Hong Kong’s special trading status.
The ban on the June 4th vigil has also struck many as an extreme application of the city’s social distancing restrictions. Hong Kong’s containment of the virus has been one of the world’s best, with just over 1,000 cases and only four deaths despite intimate economic, social and transport links with mainland China.
There has been no lockdown, while restaurants and shops have remained open with some restrictions in place. And nightlife hotspots on Hong Kong Island are often packed with patrons.
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