The rally, which is held annually since the 1989 crackdown on democratic demonstrators in China, has been banished from fears of the coronavirus, a move that many consider political in a city where infections are reduced to a handful a month.
Early Thursday evening, however, hundreds and thousands of people challenged the order, in addition to signs and fences around Victoria Park, to occupy two large football fields where the demonstration traditionally took place. While the numbers appeared declining in previous years and the usually well-organized memorial had a rather chaotic impromptu impression, they were by no means negligible, an important sign of defiance in Beijing.
Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer and former legislator, led the crowd in the chants of “ending the one-party government” and “democracy for China!”
Others sang slogans from last year’s anti-government protests, including “struggle for freedom, siding with Hong Kong” and a more recent refrain, “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”
Such slogans could be illegal in the near future, as Beijing is committed to imposing a draconian national security law that prohibits sedition, secession and separatism. Similar laws have been used to crack down on dissidents and democratic activists in China.
That looming law is currently being drafted in Beijing and will be automatically imposed in Hong Kong through a rarely used constitutional backdoor, circumventing the city legislature. The law remained suspended on this year’s Tiananmen memorial even before the event was officially banned, as both opposition and pro-government figures predicted that such demonstrations could be illegal in the future.
Hong Kong has long been the only place on Chinese soil to hold a mass commemoration of the June 4 crackdown. This fact was a sort of litmus test for the autonomy of the city from China, which has significantly reduced in recent years, culminating in the national security law, which Beijing has said is needed to prevent the type of violent unrest seen. last year.
That disorder was picking up when Hong Kong emerged from the coronavirus crisis and social distancing regulations eased. But the police had responded to previous protests with overwhelming numbers and had used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse several meetings in recent weeks.
Thursday saw a complete reversal of tactics, as police remained largely hidden while several thousand people ignored fences and signs to gather illegally in Victoria Park. It was a striking contrast, perhaps deliberate, with protests in the United States that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam stressed Tuesday of accusing his critics of “double standards” in Washington.
The crowds began to disperse shortly after 20:00. local time, after the lighting of the candles and a moment of silence to remember the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.
At its peak, the crowd spilled onto two football pitches and, although there were considerably more gaps than in previous years, it was a great demonstration of challenge in a city that seemed a little shocked in recent weeks by news on national security law.
The next major test, both of the democratic movement and of the authorities, will already arrive next week, which sees two key anniversaries of last year’s protest movement.
About 1 million people marched against an extradition law with China on June 9, 2019, while three days later, protesters blocked the city’s legislature and clashed with the police to prevent the law from being passed. It was eventually withdrawn in September 2019, at which point the anti-government movement had grown substantially, with its goals expanded beyond a single bill.