When protests broke out in Beijing and other cities across China in early 1989, many in Hong Kong were exhilarated.
“It was a time of hope,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former Hong Kong lawmaker. At that time, the city was eight years out from being handed over from British to Chinese control, and there was a sense that the young protesters across the border could be changing China for the better.
“For many Hong Kongers, we felt that 1997 was really hanging over our heads. But young people in China were demanding democracy, and we thought if they make it, it means Hong Kong will not have to live under an authoritarian regime.”
That hope became despair, however, as the People’s Liberation Army crushed the protests on June 4. No official death toll has ever been released, but rights groups estimate hundreds, if not thousands were killed. The Tiananmen protests and the crackdown have been wiped from the history books in China, censored and controlled, organizers exiled or arrested, and the relatives of those who died kept under tight surveillance.
Every year since then, Lee has helped organize a candlelit rally in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary, the only mass memorial held on Chinese soil and a key emblem of the semi-autonomous city’s political freedoms. Every year, that is, until this year.
On Monday, police refused permission for this year’s rally, citing ongoing restrictions on mass gatherings related to the coronavirus pandemic. For many in the democratic opposition, the justification rings hollow: organizers had said they would work with the authorities to ensure a safe and socially-distanced rally, and meanwhile the city’s shopping districts, subway, and public parks have been open for weeks with little issue.
Speaking to reporters after the ban was announced, Lee said the police were “suppressing our vigil under the pretense of executing the gathering ban.”
The decision by police carries extra weight as many already feared this week might be the last opportunity to freely mark the anniversary. Last month, China announced that it would impose a national security law on Hong Kong, in response to widespread and often violent anti-government unrest last year.
The law criminalizes secession, sedition and subversion. It also permits Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong for the first time – leading to fears among many in the city that members of the PLA could be deployed onto the streets should protests resume.
Nor is it the only controversial law on the horizon. On Thursday, Hong Kong lawmakers finally passed – after months of discussion and filibustering – a bill that criminalizes insulting China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.”
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group co-founded by Lee which has organized the Tiananmen vigil every year since 1990, has warned that it could be banned under the new national security law, pointing to its previous support of activists convicted under similar national security laws in China and a longstanding opposition to “one party dictatorship.”
There is good reason to believe the vigil may be banned in future. Last month, CY Leung, the city’s former chief executive and high-ranking member of a Chinese government advisory body, predicted just as much, while a commemoration in neighboring Macao – which already has an national security law on the books – has also been blocked by authorities.
On Thursday, police reiterated that they had refused permission for two gatherings on June 4, one on Hong Kong Island and another in Kowloon, and warned members of the public “to stay at home and avoid travelling to crowded places or participating in prohibited gatherings.”
According to the South China Morning Post, some 3,000 riot cops will be deployed across the city Thursday, even as organizers of the Tiananmen rally urged police to stay away, saying without them present “there will be no clashes.”
Tiananmen had an indelible effect on Hong Kong’s politics. Rallies were held in solidarity with the pro-democracy demonstrators ahead of the massacre, and many activists in the city traveled north to offer assistance and support.
After the crackdown, “Operation Yellow Bird” helped smuggle Beijing protest organizers and others at risk of arrest to the city, still then a British territory. Some 500 people were extracted from China, according to the Hong Kong Alliance, including student protest leaders such as Wu’er Kaixi, who famously debated Chinese Premier Li Peng at the height of the demonstrations.
In the years after the crackdown, pressure grew on the British to do more to protect Hong Kong under imminent Chinese rule, and in 1994 then Governor Chris Patten made elections to the city’s parliament fully democratic for the first time – a move that was not approved by London and met with outrage in Beijing.
The Legislative Council elected the following year was the first and only time the parliament has had a pro-democratic majority. It was disbanded and replaced by a Beijing-appointed body as soon as Chinese control over the city took force.
In the eight years after Tiananmen, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers moved overseas, though many returned soon after handover after a feared crackdown did not pan out and the city enjoyed an economic boom under its new rulers. Most of those returnees came with foreign passports in their back pocket, however, ready to flee again if things took a negative turn.
A renewed exodus may be on the horizon thanks to the new national security law. Following China’s announcement, the UK moved to expand some rights for holders of British National (Overseas) passports, of which there are some 300,000 in Hong Kong and up to 3 million citizens born in the city prior to 1997 eligible to apply. London said that if the law goes ahead, BNO holders will be granted 12-month stay in the UK, up from 6-months, giving them a potential path to British citizenship.
What happens next?
In two decades of Chinese rule, the Tiananmen memorial was always something that set Hong Kong apart, a litmus test for whether the city’s freedoms and autonomy were still protected.
It has also served as an incubator of sorts for political talent, often being among the first demonstrations that many Hong Kongers attend. Many activists, including former Umbrella Movement leaders Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, have spoken of the effect of the June 4 memorial in their own political awakening.
Last year, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, pointed to the annual rally as proof that “Hong Kong is a very free society.”
“If there are public gatherings to express their views and feelings on a particular historic incident, we fully respect those views,” she said.
Asked this week about whether the gathering would be banned under the new national security law, Lam said “we don’t have the drafted law right now. We can handle this later.”
Hong Kong officials have insisted that concerns over the legislation are overblown, and that the new offenses of sedition, subversion and secession will only apply a tiny handful of people, even as they admit they too are largely in the dark over Beijing’s plans.
In a statement on the law last week, the Hong Kong Alliance warned that it was “like a knife to the neck of all Hong Kong people.”
“Even if it only cuts a few, it threatens the freedom of all 7 million,” the group said. “It is the implementing of rule by fear in Hong Kong.”
For now, they are still defying that fear, even as the coronavirus restrictions have foiled plans for a mass rally. Smaller gatherings will be held across the city, and the Alliance has called on all residents to light candles at 8 p.m., holding them outside their windows to recreate the sea of light that has become a common image of the annual vigil at Victoria Park.
“Will Hong Kongers be able to hold the vigil next year? A year is an eternity in politics, and predictions are hazardous,” wrote China scholar Jerome Cohen this week. “Yet, unless there is an unexpected change in leadership in Beijing, it surely seems likely, especially in light of the forthcoming (national security law), that Hong Kong might follow Macao in succumbing to the amnesia that has long been forced upon the mainland.”
CNN’s Chermaine Lee contributed reporting.