Thousands gathered across Hong Kong to commemorate victims of China’s military crackdown in Tiananmen Square 31 years ago, defying an unprecedented ban on congregating for this year’s vigil.
People skirted around metal barricades to assemble in Victoria Park — where the annual event is held — with many clustering into small groups to adhere to social distancing rules as of 9 p.m. on Thursday. In the residential area of Sai Ying Pun, scores of people lit candles and chanted slogans outside a subway exit.
While the number of people gathering paled in comparison to past years, the assembly was notable because Hong Kong’s police earlier this week banned the event for the first time, fueling concern about the city’s dwindling autonomy from China. That left activists to plan a range of alternative events, from online vigils to smaller rallies, including in front of the Legislative Council. One group encouraged people to post photos and comments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag “#6431truth.”
Taiwan 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.”
Though law-enforcement officers weren’t clearly visible at the main gathering point in Victoria Park, at least five police vans were stationed at Fortress Hill a short distance from vigil. In Mong Kok, an area that has seen many clashes over the past year, some protesters were arrested after they started to block roads, according to a tweet from the police.
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.
“We have to let the communist party know that we haven’t forgotten what happened in 1989 and we continue to fight,” said Ms. Wong, a woman in her 40s who attended the Victoria Park vigil and would only be identified by her family name. “This fight is more important than ever now.”
The city’s legislature on Thursday passed a controversial bill, which has also fueled protesters’ anger, to outlaw disrespecting China’s national anthem.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed administration has said the rally couldn’t go forward because of a ban on gatherings of more than eight people, citing 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.
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.
“Of course the Hong Kong government will take advantage of this pandemic to keep this social distancing ban — it’s clearly politically convenient,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker who planned to mark the event with other politicians in front of the legislature. “But it will serve the opposite effect. It will just make this year’s commemoration even more conspicuous at home and abroad.”
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