Hong Kong police out in force to prevent Tiananmen commemoration

Activists arrested and as many as 7,000 police to be deployed after annual vigil banned for a second year.

Police closed off parts of Hong Kong's Victoria Park on Friday after banning the territory's annual vigil to remember the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 [Vincent Yu/AP Photo]

Thousands of police were deployed in Hong Kong on Friday and the organiser of the territory’s now-banned annual vigil of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown arrested, as the authorities tried to prevent people from gathering for any kind of remembrance of the events of 1989.

Hong Kong usually holds a mass vigil to remember those killed when soldiers stormed the square, which was packed with protesters calling for democracy, but police have banned the events for the past two years blaming the coronavirus pandemic.

This year is the first to be held since China imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong that punishes anything Beijing deems subversion, secession, “terrorism” or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Police have not clarified whether commemorating the crackdown, which has been all but erased from history in the mainland, will breach the law, but in a statement late on Thursday said any gathering posed “considerable threats to the public health and lives” and warned that those taking part in “unauthorised assemblies” could face as many as five years in prison.

“Police will deploy adequate manpower in relevant locations on the day and take resolute action to enforce the law, including making arrests,” the police said.

Some 7,000 officers will conduct stop-and-search operations throughout the day, public broadcaster RTHK reported, citing unnamed sources.

This video frame grab taken from AFPTV footage shows Chow Hang-tung (left), a leader of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China and a barrister, being led away by plainclothes police officers after being detained in Hong Kong on the anniversary of Beijing’s deadly Tiananmen crackdown [Xinqi Su/ AFP]

Hong Kong was promised political and civic freedoms unknown on the mainland when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but since the National Security Law was imposed nearly a year ago, dozens of activists and pro-democracy politicians, including popularly elected legislators, have been arrested and some jailed. Others have gone into exile.

Chow Hang-tung, the vice chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the annual vigil, was arrested on Friday morning by plainclothes officers outside her office in the city centre.

A police source told the AFP news agency that Chow was being held under Section 17A of the Public Order Ordinance, which covers publicising unlawful assemblies.

A 20-year-old was also detained on Friday morning after sharing social media posts that police said were found to “advertise or publicise a public meeting that had been prohibited by the police,” Senior Superintendent Terry Law was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong Free Press.

The territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has not commented on the commemorations, saying only that citizens must respect the law, as well as the Communist Party, which marks its 100th anniversary next month.

In the afternoon, police closed off parts of Victoria Park, where the vigil is usually held. The park is only a couple of hundred metres from Beijing’s national security office.

Analysts said it seemed the authorities were trying to extinguish any form of remembrance of Tiananmen in the territory.

“All this shows the government is doing all it can to stop people from lighting a candle or commemorating June 4,” Alkan Akad, a China researcher with Amnesty International told Al Jazeera. “According to international human rights law there’s no need to seek permission from any authority for peaceful assembly. Lighting a candle is not a crime. Peacefully remembering an event that happened 32 years ago is not a crime.”

A group of artists marked the anniversary on Thursday [Jerome Favre/EPA] 

Ficker of remembrance

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Tiananmen protests were “echoed in the struggle for democracy and freedom in Hong Kong” noting that this year’s vigil had been banned.

“The United States will continue to stand with the people of China as they demand that their government respect universal human rights,” Blinken said in a statement. “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.”

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people defied 2020’s ban on the vigil, gathering in the city’s Victoria Park and lighting candles.

This year, many plan to light candles again in their neighbourhood, if safe to do so. Some churches will be open for prayers.

Jailed activist Jimmy Sham said via his Facebook page he planned to “light a cigarette at 8pm”.

“We do not see the hope of democracy and freedom in a leader, a group, or a ceremony. Every one of us is the hope of democracy and freedom.”

Prominent activist Joshua Wong was given a 10-month prison sentence last month after pleading guilty to participating in last year’s vigil, while three others received four- to six-month sentences. Twenty more people are due in court on June 11 on similar charges.

The Hong Kong Alliance has said it would drop calls for people to show up at Victoria Park and not run an online commemoration as in 2020.

Usually thousands of people fill Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to remember the Tiananmen Square crackdown and call for democracy in China [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Its chairman Lee Cheuk-yan is in jail over an illegal assembly.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum said it would temporarily close due to an investigation into whether it had a public entertainment venue licence.

Commemorations of Tiananmen are banned in China, and the semi-autonomous territory of Macau has also banned June 4 activities.

On the democratic island of Taiwan, a memorial pavilion will be set up in Taipei’s Liberty Square, where people can lay down flowers while following social distancing rules. A light-emitting diode or LED installation of 64 lights will also be set up in the square.

China has never provided a full account of what happened in 1989. The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have been killed.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies