Flames from candles illuminated the streets and parks of Hong Kong as tens of thousands of people defied coronavirus restrictions on gatherings to commemorate China’s Tiananmen Square massacre.
The annual vigil carried new significance on Thursday as Hong Kong people remembered not only the hundreds, and possibly thousands, killed when Chinese soldiers cracked down on pro-democracy in Beijing on June 4, 1989, but also looked ahead to a new national security law that China plans to impose and critics say will threaten Hong Kong’s civil liberties.
Despite coronavirus pandemic restrictions prohibiting gatherings of more than eight people, Hong Kong police did not move to stop the main vigil in Victoria Park.
Several thousand people, many clad in black, joined the rally after breaking through barriers that sealed off the area. They held signs and chanted slogans like “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” and “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”.
Tear gas was fired and several arrest made in the district of Mong Kok during scuffles after demonstrators tried to set up roadblocks. Pockets of protesters also fanned out throughout several shopping districts.
Last month, China’s parliament, following nearly a year of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, moved to bypass the territory’s legislature to impose a national security law aimed at stifling dissent, “terrorism” and “separatism”.
Critics say the law would destroy the civil liberties Hong Kong residents enjoy under the “one country, two systems” agreement put in place when the United Kingdom handed the territory back to China in 1997. The agreement is set to end in 2047.
Reporting from Victoria Park on Thursday, Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke said there was a pervasive sense of worry from vigil organisers and pro-democracy supporters that the new legislation could spell the end for such gatherings.
“China is going to introduce those laws, and potentially target political dissidents or those people who speak out against the mainland,” she said.
The vigil took place just hours after Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislature passed a bill outlawing any disrespect of China’s national anthem, with a jail term of as long as three years.
Despite what critics have described as threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, the vigil on Thursday was “a very powerful symbol” that the spirit of the territory’s people remained intact, Anthony Dapiran, a lawyer and author, told Al Jazeera.
“Tonight has been a remarkable symbol that the Hong Kong people are still very passionate about democracy in their city, full of a fighting spirit, and I think we’re going to see them continue coming out to protest in support of their beliefs,” he said.
In Victoria Park, Yip, a 73-year-old man who only gave his family name, told AFP news agency: “I’ve come here for the vigil for 30 years in memory of the victims of the June 4 crackdown, but this year it is more significant to me.”
He added: “Because Hong Kong is experiencing the same kind of repression from the same regime, just like what happened in Beijing.”
Despite the coronavirus restrictions, 70-year-old housewife Kitty told Reuters News Agency she was not deterred.
“We are just remembering those who died on June 4, the students who were killed. What have we done wrong? For 30 years we have come here peacefully and reasonably, once it’s over it’s ‘sayonara’ (goodbye),” she said.
In a statement to mark the anniversary, the White House urged China to respect human rights and fulfill its commitments on Hong Kong.
“The American people stand together with all Chinese citizens in their pursuit of fundamental rights, including the right to accountable and representative governance and freedom of speech, assembly, and religious belief,” the statement said.
The US and Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, have urged China to atone for the crackdown, for which China has never provided a full account.
Mass hunger strike, Tiananmen Square 1989. Photo is by a friend who wants to share it anonymously. I first tweeted it last year. Now, on eve of 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre, it's even more important to remember those days of peaceful protest, and those ideals. pic.twitter.com/J6nEFg12OB
— 马建 Ma Jian (@majian53) June 3, 2020
China’s foreign ministry said the calls for an apology were “complete nonsense”.
“The great achievements since the founding of new China over the past 70 or so years fully demonstrates that the developmental path China has chosen is completely correct,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.
In mainland China, authorities do not allow any open discussion about the incident and censors remove any mention of it from the internet.
In rare comments last year, China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said the 1989 protests were “political turmoil that the central government needed to quell, which was the correct policy.
“Due to this, China has enjoyed stability, and if you visit China you can understand that part of history,” he said.
Meanwhile, amid days of protests in the US over police violence against Black citizens, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday tweeted a photo of him meeting prominent Tiananmen survivors.
In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen referenced the island’s own struggle to come to terms with the abuses that took place during decades of martial law.
“Around the world, there are 365 days in a year. Yet in China, one of those days is purposely forgotten each year.”
Around the world, there are 365 days in a year. Yet in China, one of those days is purposely forgotten each year. In Taiwan, there were once days missing from our calendar, but we’ve worked to bring them to light. I hope one day China can say the same.
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) June 4, 2020