Hong Kong, China: On the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong’s Central Park is devoid of people for the first time in 32 years.
Late Friday, authorities banned entrance to a Hong Kong park that normally hosts massive vigils on the anniversary of China’s fatal Tiananmen Square crackdown, but flashes of defiance still flickered across the city.
In previous years, large crowds have congregated in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the Chinese military smashing peaceful democracy rallies in Beijing on June 4, 1989.
Hundreds of people were killed in the crackdown, with some estimates putting the figure at around 1,000.
On the mainland, public commemorations of the incident are prohibited, and until recently, Hong Kong, China’s semi-autonomous territory, was the only area in the country where large-scale commemorations were permitted.
However, this year’s vigil was canceled at a time when authorities are cracking down on dissent in the aftermath of massive and often violent democratic protests two years ago.
For the first time in 32 years, police placed cordons around Victoria Park, keeping crowds out and leaving the arena free of candle-carrying mourning.
Officers used loud hailers and signs to urge people to disperse from surrounding streets as activists approached the park and were stopped and searched.
Despite their inability to gather en masse, many Hong Kong citizens found methods to pay their respects to the deceased.
According to AFP reporters on the scene, many residents in the Causeway Bay and Mong Kok areas displayed cell phone flashlights at 8 p.m. (1200 GMT), the time when candles are customarily lit. Others took candles from their pockets and lighted them where they stood.
Some others attended mourning services at churches across the city that claimed they would welcome mourners.
“I used to commemorate June 4 at Victoria Park but this year it is not safe to go there,” a 35-year-old office worker who gave her name as Beth, told AFP outside a Catholic church in Sai Wan Ho district.
“I am not Catholic, I usually never attend mass or go to church. I just want to be part of this special occasion and commemorate it because I think it is important,” she added.
Some 7,000 officers were placed on standby to prevent any show of pro-democracy people power on Friday’s sensitive anniversary and authorities warned they would adopt a zero-tolerance approach.
In the morning, four plainclothes police officers detained Chow Hang-tung, a prominent member of the Hong Kong Alliance that organizes the annual vigil.
Police said she and a 20-year-old male had been arrested on suspicion of publicizing an unlawful assembly through social media posts.
“Their online remarks involved advertising and calling on others to participate or attend banned public activities,” senior superintendent Law Kwok-hoi told reporters.
Virus or politics?
Authorities banned this year’s gathering citing the coronavirus pandemic — although Hong Kong has not recorded an untraceable local transmission in more than a month.
Last year’s vigil was also denied permission because of the pandemic, but thousands defied the ban and rallied inside the park anyway.
Authorities have warned in recent days that the subversion clause of a powerful new security law imposed on Hong Kong could be used against those marking the Tiananmen anniversary.
Beijing imposed the law a few weeks after last year’s Tiananmen rally and it has transformed the city’s once freewheeling political landscape.
More than 100 pro-democracy figures have been arrested under the law, mostly for political views and speech. Most are denied bail and face up to life in prison if convicted.
Pro-Beijing politicians have suggested that calls to “End one-party rule” and “Bring democracy to China” — both common chants at Tiananmen vigils — could now be deemed subversion, one of the crimes in the broadly-worded national security law.
The security legislation has also been combined with a campaign dubbed “Patriots rule Hong Kong” aimed at purging from public office anyone perceived to be disloyal.
In mainland China, the Tiananmen anniversary is usually marked by an increase in online censorship and the square in Beijing being cordoned off.
There was tight security at the square on Friday, with police checking the IDs of people at each point of access, according to an AFP journalist in Beijing.
China often faces international criticism for its campaign to stifle remembrance of the crackdown.
On Friday, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for “a full accounting of all those killed, detained, or missing”.
China responded to the US criticism by saying Washington should “look in the mirror” over its own human rights record.
This story has been updated and wrapped.