HONG KONG — Police arrested a prominent activist, locked down a city park, and placed 7,000 officers on standby as they sought to prevent Hong Kong residents from observing Friday’s anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place 32 years ago in Beijing.
The moves, which followed weeks of warnings against participation in the annual commemoration, reflect China’s desire to snuff out any remnants of dissent in the former British colony, however mild or peaceful.
For the first time in more than three decades, Victoria Park was empty on the anniversary, a stark symbol of Hong Kong’s dramatic loss of freedoms. Still, hundreds of black-clad people gathered in and around the perimeter of the park, turning on the flashlights on their phones, lighting a candle, or carrying an electric flame to honor the memory of those lost on June 4 — and to mourn the crackdown in their own city.
Authorities are trying to end the vigil, which for decades has drawn tens of thousands of people to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on June 4 and provided a point of difference with mainland China, where the 1989 slaughter of pro-democracy demonstrators has been scrubbed from history and censored. Attendees would light candles, illuminating the park in a powerful symbol of the city’s enduring protest culture.
Under Beijing’s tightened control, however, differences between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland are dissipating. Police have banned Friday’s vigil — ostensibly, like last year, because of the coronavirus, although the city has not recorded a local case in at least two weeks. Other large-scale events such as art fairs have been permitted, and nightclubs are filled with partygoers on weekends.
Last year, despite the ban, thousands of people gathered at the park to light candles for those killed at Tiananmen. There is no official death toll from the crackdown, but estimates range from several hundred to more than 10,000.
Authorities in Hong Kong this year were intent on preventing a repeat of such defiance. Courts have jailed protest leaders who took part in the banned vigil last year. Police warned Thursday that anyone who attended could be jailed for up to five years, adding that holding the event “will pose considerable threats to the public health and lives.”
Early Friday, officers arrested Chow Hang-Tung, a lawyer and activist who is part of the group that organizes the vigil. Chow is among the few leading activists who is not already in jail; the 36-year-old had said before her arrest that she planned to hold a candle, alone, to keep the memory of the Tiananmen massacre alive. Police also arrested a 20-year-old delivery man, alleging that both he and Chow were publicizing and promoting the banned event.
"They are using scare tactics to try to intimidate people," Chow said in an interview before her arrest. "I think the government is actually the one who is afraid of the power symbolized by the candlelight vigil."
Later Friday, police cleared out the few people walking through Victoria Park and locked down most of it. Instead of protesters wearing black and holding candles, the park filled up with police officers in blue uniforms, while police vehicles encircled the perimeter. Officers were stopping and searching people wearing black near the park and on surrounding streets, as well as cars driving through the harbor tunnel that connects Hong Kong Island the rest of the city.
At 8 p.m., when those at the vigil would traditionally light a candle and hold it up to the sky, hundreds of police officers rushed out to clear bystanders and people around the periphery of the park, forcing them onto the surrounding roads.
For those in Hong Kong, preserving the memory of June 4 is about more than just the victims lost at Tiananmen or their call for a more democratic China. The territory has come under an onslaught from Beijing in the wake of 2019 anti-government protests, especially after the imposition of a national security law that criminalizes dissent with penalties of up to life in prison.
As authorities rewrite Hong Kong’s history, erasing its long-standing democratic aspirations and emphasizing ties with the Chinese Communist Party, many here see the act of remembering June 4 as part of a broader effort to resist and honor the spirit of their city amid the suppression.
"The 2019 protests were an awakening event for all Hong Kongers to fight for our own freedoms," said a 25-year old woman who wanted to be identified just by her last name, Fung, over fears of repercussions. "We have a responsibility to keep that fight alive," she added, citing the hundreds of Hong Kong activists and protesters who have been jailed.
Foreign governments have condemned the dramatic loss of freedoms in Hong Kong since the 2019 protests. On Friday, the US Consulate in Hong Kong posted a photo of lighted candles in the windows of their building in central Hong Kong, along with a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
"We honor the sacrifices of those killed 32 years ago, and the brave activists who carry on their efforts today in the face of ongoing government repression," Blinken said.
The European Union office in Hong Kong tweeted a similar photo, while the United Kingdom’s consulate shared a photo on Twitter of a single lighted candle.
Several Catholic churches continued to publicly honor the victims and commemorate the massacre through special Masses on Friday evening. Hundreds showed up, filling the pews — even non-Catholics. Some such as a 72-year-old who gave just her last name, Tam, citing security concerns, waited hours to secure a place.
“They want to silence us and block us everywhere,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I come when I can seize this chance?”