by Su Xinqi and Yan Zhao
Tens of thousands of people across Hong Kong lit candles and chanted democracy slogans on Thursday to commemorate China’s deadly Tiananmen crackdown, defying a ban against gathering as tensions seethed over a planned new security law.
The biggest crowds descended on Victoria Park that has hosted huge Tiananmen anniversary vigils for the past three decades, with smaller rallies erupting in multiple shopping districts and local neighbourhoods.
Police arrested some demonstrators in one shopping area, in scenes reminiscent of seven months of violent protests last year, although they allowed the main rally to proceed.
The displays of resistance came hours after Hong Kong’s legislature passed a bill criminalising insults to China’s national anthem, which the pro-democracy movement sees as yet another example of eroding freedoms.
China also last month moved to impose the security law on Hong Kong which would outlaw subversion and has cemented fears that the semi-autonomous city is losing its treasured liberties.
“I’ve come here for the vigil for 30 years in memory of the victims of the June 4 crackdown, but this year it is more significant to me,” a 74-year-old man who gave his surname as Yip told AFP as he joined the crowds inside Victoria Park.
“Because Hong Kong is experiencing the same kind of repression from the same regime, just like what happened in Beijing.”
Hundreds of people — by some estimates more than a thousand — were killed in on June 4, 1989, when China’s communist rulers deployed the military into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to crush a student-led movement for democratic reforms.
Commemorations of the event are forbidden in mainland China but have been allowed in Hong Kong, which has been granted liberties under the terms of its 1997 handover from the British.
This year’s vigil was banned, with authorities citing coronavirus restrictions on group gatherings even though people are allowed to commute in packed trains to work.
As dusk fell on Thursday, many thousands of people, including prominent democracy leaders, began pouring into Victoria Park and lit candles as an act of remembrance and resistance.
Some wore black t-shirts with the word “Truth” emblazoned in white. Others were in office attire.
Many shouted pro-democracy slogans including “Stand with Hong Kong” and “End one party rule”, in reference to the communists who hold monopoly power in China.
Neighbourhood, church vigils
Crowds have swelled at Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigils whenever fears have spiked that Beijing is prematurely stamping out the city’s own freedoms, an issue that has dominated the finance hub for the past 12 months.
In response to the seven months of protests last year, China announced plans to impose the security law, which will be approved by national authorities in Beijing and bypass Hong Kong’s legislature.
China says the law is needed to tackle “terrorism” and “separatism” in a restless city it now regards as a direct national security threat.
Critics, including many Western nations, fear it will bring mainland-style political oppression to a business hub.
In mainland China, authorities do not allow any open discussion about the Tiananmen crackdown and censors scrub any mention of it off the internet.
The candle emoji has been unavailable in recent days on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.
Police in Beijing prevented an AFP photographer from entering Tiananmen Square to record the regular pre-dawn flag-raising ceremony on Thursday and ordered him to delete some photos.
The United States and Taiwan issued statements calling on China to atone for the deadly crackdown.
“Around the world, there are 365 days in a year. Yet in China, one of those days is purposely forgotten each year,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a photo of him meeting prominent Tiananmen survivors.
China’s foreign ministry described calls for Beijing to apologise for Tiananmen as “complete nonsense”.
“The great achievements since the founding of new China over the past 70 or so years fully demonstrates that the developmental path China has chosen is completely correct,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.