Cancellation of Hong Kong Tiananmen vigil raises protest worries

Tens of thousands have gathered in Hong Kong every June 4 for the past three decades to light candles in the world’s largest commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But this year, the candles will have to be lit elsewhere.

Hong Kong police have banned the event for the first time, citing public health concerns over potential new coronavirus infections. But for a city rocked by China’s move to introduce a national security law last month, the cancellation has fuelled even deeper concerns than the pandemic.

“This time, they use . . . Covid-19 as an excuse, but in future maybe they will use other reasons, such as national security legislation,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The ban on the vigil comes at a critical moment. The Hong Kong government is also expected to pass a bill on Thursday that would criminalise criticism of China’s national anthem.

The move to push ahead with the measures have raised concerns about Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre, after the US threatened to revoke the city’s special trading status. The decision also sparked new protests and further arrests, after social distancing rules implemented during the health crisis had put a pause on demonstrations.

Analysts warn the decision to cancel this week’s commemoration risked fuelling more anti-government protests.

The event, which would be unimaginable on the Chinese mainland where mentions of the Tiananmen incident are forbidden, is widely seen as a symbol of the former colony’s autonomy from Beijing. This week’s event was especially potent following months of pro-democracy protests in the city last year.

“There’s a kind of emotion on this event because you have gone there for 30 years — it becomes part of your life,” said Prof Choy.

Organisers have asked people to light a candle wherever they are in the city, despite the ban on gathering at the city’s Victoria Park. “We are calling upon every corner of Hong Kong, every corner of the earth to light a candle at 8pm,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chair of Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.

Beatrice Chu, a pro-democracy district councillor, expects to distribute 2,000 candles and leaflets provided by the alliance.

“It is a pity that we cannot commemorate together,” she said.

Others will congregate elsewhere to mark the occasion. Seven Catholic churches, themselves recently reopened at limited capacity after a period of closure due to coronavirus, will hold special services to commemorate the events of 1989.

Stephen Chan, a 73-year-old priest, said a commemorative mass was celebrated each year, but usually took place on a day other than June 4, so that worshippers could also attend the park vigil. 

“We expect the police will go to every one of the seven churches, and arrest people, if they discover that it’s overcrowded,” he said. “So we have to be very careful.”

But some of the younger Hong Kongers most closely associated with last year’s demonstrations see the Tiananmen memorial differently. Yick, a 26-year-old protester, said he used to go to Victoria Park with his parents but has not attended for many years. “I think it’s more of a symbolic thing,” he said.

Others are unfazed by coronavirus, with new cases having slowed to a trickle in the city and bars and offices have largely reopened. Mr Choy says he will attend, not because of any organisation, but because he would “like to continue my way of living”. 

Yick thinks it is important to remind the world of the “tragedy”, but ultimately sees the event as “symbolising democracy rather than actually thinking of a way to execute it”.

“It’s a bit passive to just hold a candle and stuff,” he says. “You know, it’s a memory kind of thing.”