For decades, Hong Kong was the only place in China where victims of the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square could be publicly mourned at a candlelight vigil. This year, Hong Kong is notable for all the ways it is trying to forget the 1989 massacre.
In the days leading up to the June 4 anniversary on Sunday, even small shops displaying items alluding to the crackdown were closely watched, receiving repeated visits from the police. Over the weekend, thousands of police patrolled the streets of the Causeway Bay neighborhood where the vigil was usually held and set up tents where they searched people suspected of trying to mourn. They arrested four people accused of “acted with seditious intent” and detained four others.
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader in the Tiananmen Square protest movement, said Hong Kong was now under the same “despotic rule” as the mainland.
“Back in 1989, we were not aware of the mission of a democratic China,” said Mr. Zhou, now executive director of Human Rights in China, an advocacy group in New York. “Then the protests in Hong Kong were met with the same suppression, the same smearing and erasure of memories.”
In 1989, the pro-democracy movement in China attracted massive support from Hong Kong, then a British colony. After the Chinese military cleared student protesters occupying Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and possibly thousands, some student leaders in Beijing were sent to safety via Hong Kong.
Every June 4 for three decades, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park was where the Mothers of Tiananmen, a group representing victims of the massacre, could openly mourn and express hopes for a freer China. The rallies drew crowds of tens of thousands of people, although in the past decade some of the city’s younger generation of activists have questioned the relevance of the mainland-focused movement as they embrace a different Hong Kong identity.
But since China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, virtually all forms of dissent have been criminalized in the city. Pro-democracy and anti-government protests like those that rocked the city in 2019 have been quelled.
The authorities paid particular attention to commemorations of the Tiananmen massacre. They raided a museum dedicated to it, removed books about the repression from libraries and jailed the organizers of the vigil.
Over the past two years, authorities have cited pandemic restrictions to ban all public memorials to the crackdown. Those Covid restrictions were lifted this year, but instead of a Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park was occupied by a trade fair. The fair was organized by pro-Beijing groups to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, one month before this anniversary.
The closure of vigil organizers raised questions about whether Hong Kong would ever allow residents to peacefully mourn the victims of the Tiananmen massacre.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee avoided giving a clear answer, saying only that “everyone should act in accordance with the law and think about what they are doing so that they are prepared to bear the consequences.”
But Saturday’s arrests left little doubt. Among those arrested were Lau Ka-yee of the Tiananmen Mothers and Kwan Chun-pong, a former vigil volunteer; they carried leaflets saying they were on hunger strike as individual mourners. Sanmu Chan, a performance artist, shouted: “Hong Kongers, do not be afraid! Don’t forget the 4th of June,” as a crowd of police officers led him away. The police also detained a man and a woman carrying chrysanthemums and wearing white clothes, a symbol of mourning.
Several more people were taken away by police on Sunday, including Chan Poin, a labor activist; Mak In-ting, former head of a journalists’ association; and Alexandra Wong, better known as Grandma Wong, a familiar figure at many protests, often waving a British flag.
In the run-up to the anniversary, the authorities targeted the smallest gestures of remembrance.
Debbie Chan, a former pro-democracy county clerk, had posted several photos on social media of electric candles she displayed in her grocery store last Tuesday. The police and representatives of three different government agencies visited her several times because of it, she said. But she was not embarrassed.
“The more we’re not allowed to talk about it, the more they make these moves, the more I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” she said in a phone interview.
For Lit Ming Wai, a playwright, Hong Kong has a responsibility to preserve and transmit the memory of repression, especially since it has been distorted and then erased elsewhere in China.
In 2009, she co-founded a community theater group, Stage 64, which strives to make the June 4 story more accessible to young people in Hong Kong. The troupe’s most popular play is “May 35,” a euphemism for June 4 that some people on the mainland use to refer to the crackdown.
“When we talk about June 4th, we don’t just think about the Tiananmen mothers. More than that, we are thinking of Hong Kong,” said Ms. Litt, who was the MC of the June 4 vigil from 2004 to 2014.
This play can no longer be performed in Hong Kong without risk of prosecution. Now based in England, Ms Leet is looking to take the game overseas. The play was originally performed in Cantonese and had its Mandarin debut in Taipei, Taiwan, on Friday.
“For us Tiananmen survivors, the loss of Hong Kong – this very important place that protected history and truth – is very painful,” said Mr. Zhou, a former Tiananmen leader. After the June 4 attack and forced closure of a museum in Hong Kong in 2021, Mr. Zhou donated several Tiananmen artifacts to a newly established permanent exhibition in New York, including a bloodstained banner, a tent and a mimeograph. One section was devoted to Hong Kong.
He added that there is a connection to the wave of dissidents in Hong Kong who have left the city – the pain of exile and their struggle to keep the movement alive while away from home. But their presence abroad helps keep the memory of repression alive elsewhere, he said.
“On the other hand, many Hong Kongers are now passionately participating in June 4 activities around the world, tripling attendance in some places,” he said. “Now there are many cities that are starting to celebrate June 4 because of the arrival of Hong Kongers.”