The United States has said the crackdown on peaceful protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 will “never be forgotten”, and that the struggle for democracy was echoed today in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.
China has not revealed how many people were killed when the army used live ammunition to clear Tiananmen Square of protesters who had been calling for democratic reforms.
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Rights groups say thousands were killed, while the then British ambassador to China estimated the death toll at 10,000, according to notes that were declassified in 2017.
“The efforts of these brave individuals will not be forgotten,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement to mark 33 years since the crackdown. “Each year, we honor and remember those who stood up for human rights and fundamental freedoms. While many are no longer able to speak up themselves, we and many around the world continue to stand up on their behalf and support their peaceful efforts to promote democracy and the rights of individuals.”
The protesters who occupied Tiananmen did not only want political change, they were also frustrated at the government’s handling of the economy and rising corruption. They were dismissed as “counter-revolutionaries” by party leaders and over the past three decades, public discussion of the crackdown has become taboo on the mainland.
The incident is usually commemorated in Hong Kong, however, with tens of thousands of people occupying Victoria Park in 2019 for the last major vigil before pandemic restrictions curbed gatherings and Beijing imposed the National Security Law.
This year, police in the territory have warned people against holding the event, and on Friday night cordoned off the area telling anyone there to move on.
The civil society group that organised the vigil was disbanded last year and some of its leaders are now facing criminal charges. A small museum on the crackdown was also closed after a police raid, and the Pillar of Shame, a statue that had stood in a courtyard at Hong Kong University in remembrance of Tiananmen, was removed under cover of darkness.
Rights groups say the broadly-worded security law, which criminalises activities Beijing deems subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with up to life in prison, has “decimated” Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. The authorities credit the law with restoring “stability” to the territory after months of protests in 2019 that began with mass marches in opposition to a planned mainland extradition law and evolved into a broader call for political reform.
“Today, the struggle for democracy and freedom continues to echo in Hong Kong,” Blinken said, noting that the vigil had been “banned in an attempt to suppress the memories of that day. To the people of China and to those who continue to stand against injustice and seek freedom, we will not forget June 4.”
Campaigners have told Al Jazeera that public events will be held around the world to remember the crackdown, including in Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia.