Hong Kong protesters plan to commemorate the 1989 military assault on activists in Tiananmen Square after authorities banned a mass vigil for the first time in three decades, citing virus-related social distancing measures.
The unprecedented ban left activists and pro-democracy campaigners in the city planning a range of alternative events, from online vigils and candle distribution across the city to smaller rallies, including in front of the Legislative Council. One group is encouraging people to post photos and comments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram around 8 p.m. using the hashtag “#6431truth,” a reference to the massacre 31 years ago on June 4.
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.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed administration has said the rally can’t go forward because of a ban on gatherings of more than eight people as a result of 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.
“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 plans 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.”
For the past 30 years, residents of the semi-autonomous city have held a candlelight vigil that draws tens of thousands of attendees for an annual memorial to those who lost their lives when China’s leadership ordered troops to fire on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s central square and the nearby streets. Estimates of the dead have ranged from hundreds to thousands: there’s never been an independent investigation.
Last year’s vigil drew more than 180,000 participants to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, according to the organizers — the largest turnout since the vigils began in 1990. Police downplayed that figure, saying 37,000 attended at its peak.
The move to prevent the vigil also comes at a time when tensions are rising between the U.S. and China on fronts ranging from eroding freedoms in Hong Kong to 5G technology, trade issues and responsibility for the pandemic.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam this week accused the Trump administration of “double standards” after urging strong police efforts against protesters on its own streets after expressing support for Hong Kong’s demonstrations even as they turned violent.
China’s surprise move to introduce new rules outlawing subversion, sedition, secession and foreign influence in the financial hub has prompted concern from foreign governments and threats by the U.S. to retaliate — including revoking Hong Kong’s special trading status.
President Donald Trump vowed tough measures, without providing many details, after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the U.S. could no longer certify the city as sufficiently autonomous from China. The annual ruling underpins the city’s separate status and allows different treatment from the mainland on tariffs and export controls.
The ban on the June 4th vigil has also struck many as an extreme application of the city’s social distancing restrictions. Hong Kong’s containment of the virus has been one of the world’s best, with just over 1,000 cases and only four deaths despite intimate economic, social and transport links with mainland China.
There has been no lockdown, while restaurants and shops have remained open with some restrictions in place. And nightlife hotspots on Hong Kong Island are often packed with patrons.
— With assistance by Natalie Lung
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