Police in Hong Kong have detained dozens of people on charges of “breaching public peace”, including a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers and a man who held a candle, during a crackdown on commemorations of the anniversary of the bloodshed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Restrictions in Hong Kong have stifled what were once the largest vigils marking the anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese troops on pro-democracy demonstrators, leaving cities like Taipei, London, New York and Berlin to keep the memory of June 4, 1989, alive.
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Near Victoria Park on Sunday night, the previous site of yearly vigils, hundreds of police conducted stop and search operations, and deployed armoured vehicles and police vans.
Police took away more than a dozen people at the scene, according to the Reuters news agency, including activist Alexandra Wong, 67, who carried a bouquet of flowers, a man who held a copy of “35th of May”, a play on the Tiananmen crackdown, and an elderly man standing alone on a street corner with a candle.
“The regime wants you to forget, but you can’t forget… It [China] wants to whitewash all history,” said Chris To, 51, who visited the park in a black T-shirt and was searched by police.
“We need to use our bodies and word of mouth to tell others what happened.”
In a statement, police said 11 men and 12 women aged between 20 and 74 were detained on suspicion of “breaching the public peace at the scene”.
A further four people had been arrested on Saturday for “seditious” acts and “disorderly conduct”, and four more on suspicion of breaching the peace.
Discussion of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square – when China’s Communist Party sent in troops and tanks to quash peaceful protests – is highly sensitive for Chinese authorities and commemoration is forbidden on the mainland.
Hundreds – by some estimates, more than 1,000 – were killed.
Commemorations of the event have also become increasingly off-limits in Hong Kong since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, effectively barring anyone from holding memorial events.
After the enactment of the security law, Tiananmen-related visual spectacles, including statues at universities, were also removed. Three leaders of the group that used to organise the vigil were charged with subversion under the law. The group itself was disbanded in 2021 after being informed by police that it was under investigation for working on behalf of foreign groups, an accusation the group denied.
Most recently, books featuring the event have been pulled from public library shelves.
Ahead of the anniversary, senior officials in Hong Kong warned people to abide by the national security law but refused to clarify if commemoration activities were illegal under the legislation. Authorities also tightened security across Hong Kong, deploying as many as 6,000 police, including riot and anti-terrorism officers, according to local media.
Following Sunday’s arrests, the office of United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a tweet that it was “alarmed by reports of detentions” in Hong Kong and called for the “release of anyone detained for exercising freedom of expression & peaceful assembly”.
Amnesty International also condemned the detentions, saying the use of colonial-era sedition charges against activists and the persistence of non-conforming voices “lays bare the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience”.
It added: “The Hong Kong government’s shameful campaign to stop people marking this anniversary mirrors the censorship of the Chinese central government and is an insult to those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.”
Despite the anniversary crackdown, some Hong Kong individuals and businesses quietly marked June 4.
A shop gave away candles, while a bookstore displayed Tiananmen Square archival material. Jailed Hong Kong activist Chow Hang-tung, one of the leaders of a group called The Alliance, which used to organise the June 4 vigils, said on Facebook that she would hold a 34-hour hunger strike.
In Beijing, meanwhile, Tiananmen Square was thronged with tourists taking pictures under the watchful eyes of police and other personnel but with no obvious sign of stepped-up security.
Ahead of the anniversary, a group of mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen crackdown sought redress and issued a statement renewing their call for “truth, compensation and accountability”.
“Though 34 years have passed, for us, family members of those killed, the pain of losing our loved ones in that one night has tormented us to this day,” the group said in a statement released by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights in China.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning, when asked about the government’s response to events around the world to mark the anniversary, said in Beijing on Friday that the government had already come to a “clear conclusion about the political turmoil in the late 1980s”.
In democratically-governed Taiwan, the last remaining part of the Chinese-speaking world where the anniversary can be marked freely, hundreds attended a memorial at Taipei’s Liberty Square where a “Pillar of Shame” statue was displayed.
Kacey Wong, an artist who is among dozens of Hong Kong residents who have moved to Taiwan, said more than 30 years of commemorating the 1989 protests had made it a part of life.
Wong said an artist friend, Sanmu Chen, had been detained along with others while attempting to stage a public street performance in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.
“So, it’s all engrained in our subconscious that we should care and practise our sympathy towards other people who are yearning for democracy and freedom,” Wong said.
Taiwan Vice President William Lai, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in next January’s election, wrote on his Facebook page that the memory of what happened in Beijing in 1989 must be preserved.
“The event commemorating June 4 has continued to be held in Taipei, which shows that democracy and authoritarianism are the biggest differences between Taiwan and China,” he said.
Vigils were also held around the world, from Japan to Australia, with people standing with candles next to images of the brutal crackdown.
In Sydney, dozens of demonstrators rallied at the Town Hall, chanting “Free Hong Kong”, while holding up yellow umbrellas, the symbol of pro-democracy protests since 2014, and placards.
— Frances Hui 許穎婷 (@frances_hui) June 5, 2023
And in London, before marching to the Chinese embassy, protesters staged a re-enactment featuring a blow-up tank and women dressed in white, emulating a statue to liberty set up on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A 59-year-old poet from China’s Sichuan province told the AFP news agency at the Trafalgar Square rally that his family fled soon after the Tiananmen crackdown.
“Chinese people in my generation know what happened but the younger ones, not really,” said the man, who declined to be named for fear of Chinese reprisals.
“Their parents, their grandparents, need to keep up the knowledge and we all need to remember at events overseas like this.”