Hong Kong police have banned a vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre for the first time in three decades, sparking criticism that the authorities are using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for stifling dissent.
The June 4 ceremony attracts tens of thousands each year in what is the world’s largest commemoration of Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Hong Kong and Macau, where smaller planned events have also been cancelled, are the only jurisdictions in China where such memorial services are allowed.
The decision to ban the Hong Kong event comes just days after Beijing pushed through a controversial plan to impose national security legislation on the territory following months of pro-democracy protests last year.
Chinese authorities say the measures are needed to counter separatism, “subversion of state power, terrorism or interference by foreign countries or outside influences”. Critics, however, say they are contrary to the “one country, two systems” framework implemented after the handover of the territory from UK to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, which gave the city a high degree of political and legal autonomy from Beijing.
Police said the decision to ban the public assembly was to limit the potential spread of new virus infections in a city that has successfully contained the pandemic. Hong Kong recorded five locally transmitted infections this week after more than two weeks with no local cases, taking the total number of infections to 1,088 and just four deaths.
In recent weeks, social distancing rules have been eased, with public gatherings limited to eight people. However, enforcement of such measures has been light and the city has largely operated with few restrictions. Venues, including restaurants, bars and schools have reopened.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group which organises the June 4 vigil, said the health crisis was an excuse to block an unwelcome event at a time when Beijing wanted to assert its authority over the financial hub.
“This is obviously an excuse to suppress protest assemblies,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, who chairs the alliance. “The police have no reasonable arguments to ban our public assembly.”
The group has called on people to join the commemoration online and hold candlelight vigils across the city.
Human rights group Amnesty International echoed this view, saying that an outright ban was unnecessary and counterproductive.
“Covid-19 must not be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, Amnesty International’s deputy director for east and south-east Asia. “Hong Kong authorities should help facilitate a socially distanced Tiananmen vigil rather than outright banning it.”
“By deeming this important memorial event ‘illegal’, the police have again needlessly exacerbated rising tensions when thousands of people simply want to light a candle for those who lost their lives,” he added.
The national security legislation is the first time Beijing has sought to introduce a law that would insert criminal penalties into Hong Kong’s legal code. The move would bypass the city’s legislature and has raised concerns about Hong Kong’s future as a global financial centre.