Tiananmen Square massacre: Hong Kong perhaps marks the anniversary for the last time

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Ousted General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, dies at age 73 on April 15, 1989. The next day, thousands of students gather at Tiananmen Square to mourn him -- Hu had become a symbol of reform for the student movement. A week later thousands more marched to Tiananmen Square -- the start of an occupation that would end in a tragic showdown.

“It was a moment of hope,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former Hong Kong legislator. At the time, the city was eight years away from the transition from British to Chinese control, and there was a feeling that young demonstrators across the border could change China for the better.

“For many Hong Kong, we felt that 1997 was really taking over our heads. But the young people in China were asking for democracy and we thought that if they did, it means that Hong Kong will not have to live under an authoritarian regime.”

That hope became desperation, however, when the People’s Liberation Army crushed protests on June 4th. No official death toll has ever been released, but rights groups estimate hundreds, if not thousands, have been killed. The Tiananmen protests and repression were canceled from the history books in China, censored and controlled, the organizers exiled or arrested and relatives of those who died were kept under close surveillance.

On Monday, police refused permission for this year’s demonstration, citing ongoing restrictions on mass meetings related to the coronavirus pandemic. For many in the democratic opposition, the justification sounds empty: the organizers said they would work with the authorities to ensure a safe and socially spaced demonstration, and in the meantime the city’s shopping, subway and public parks neighborhoods have been opened for weeks with little problem.

Speaking to reporters after the ban was announced, Lee said the police “repressed our vigil with the excuse of carrying out the collection ban.”

The police decision carries more weight, as many already feared this week could be the last chance to celebrate the anniversary freely. Last month, China announced that it would impose a draconian national security law in Hong Kong in response to last year’s widespread and often violent anti-government unrest.

The law criminalizes secession, sedition and subversion. It also allows Chinese security services to operate for the first time in Hong Kong – leading to fears among many in the city that PLA members may be deployed on the streets should protests resume.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group co-founded by Lee who has been organizing the Tiananmen vigil every year since 1990, warned that it could be banned according to the new law, indicating its previous support for activists convicted under similar national security laws in China and long opposition to “party dictatorship”.
There are good reasons to believe that waking may be banned in the future. Last month, CY Leung, the city’s former CEO and high-ranking member of a Chinese government advisory body, expected equally, while he also has a commemoration in nearby Macau – which already has a national security law been blocked by the authorities.

Historic moment

Tiananmen had an indelible effect on Hong Kong politics. The rallies were held in solidarity with democratic demonstrators ahead of the massacre and many activists from the city traveled north to offer assistance and support.

After the repression “Yellow Bird operation“helped smuggle protest organizers from Beijing and others at risk of arrest in the city, still then in British territory. About 500 people were extracted from China, according to the Hong Kong Alliance, including student protest leaders such as Wu’er Kaixi, who is famously discussed Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng at the height of the demonstrations.
In the years following the crackdown, pressure increased on the British to do more to protect Hong Kong under imminent Chinese rule, and in 1994 the then governor Chris Patten made fully democratic elections for the city’s parliament for the first time – one move that was not approved by London and aroused indignation in Beijing.
The Legislative Council elected the following year was the first and only time that Parliament had a democratic majority. It has been dissolved and replaced by an organ appointed in Beijing as soon as Chinese control over the city entered into force.

Over the next eight years in Tiananmen, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong moved abroad, although many returned shortly after delivery after a feared crackdown did not break loose and the city enjoyed an economic boom under its new rulers. Most of those returnees arrived with foreign passports in the back pocket, however, ready to flee again if things had taken a negative turn.

A new exodus could be on the horizon thanks to the new national security law. Following the announcement of China, the United Kingdom moved to expand some rights for British (overseas) national passport holders, of which there are approximately 300,000 in Hong Kong and up to 3 million citizens born in the city before 1997 who can apply. London said that if the law continues, BNO holders will be granted a 12-month stay in the UK, starting from 6 months, giving them a potential path for British citizenship.

What happens next?

In two decades of Chinese rule, the Tiananmen memorial has always been something that distinguished Hong Kong, a litmus test to verify whether the freedoms and autonomy of the city were still protected.

He was also a sort of incubator of political talents, often among the first demonstrations in which many Hong Kong took part. Many activists, including former umbrella movement leader Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, spoke of the effect of the June 4 memorial on their political awakening.

Last year, the city leader, Carrie Lam, pointed at the annual demonstration as proof that “Hong Kong is a very free society”.

“If there are public meetings to express their opinions and feelings about a particular historical incident, we fully respect those opinions,” he said.

Asked this week about whether the meeting would be banned under the new national security law, Lam said “we don’t have the law drafted at the moment. We can handle it later.”

Hong Kong officials insisted that the concerns over the legislation are exaggerated and that the new crimes of sedition, subversion and secession will only apply a handful of people, although they admit that they too are largely in the dark about Beijing’s plans. .

In a statement on last week’s law, the Hong Kong Alliance warned that it was “like a knife in the neck of all the people of Hong Kong”.

“Even if it cuts only a few, it threatens the freedom of all 7 million,” the group said. “It is the implementation of the rule by fear in Hong Kong.”

For now, they are still defying that fear, even though coronavirus restrictions have thwarted plans for a mass demonstration. Smaller meetings will be held across the city and the Alliance has invited all the residents light candles at 20:00, keeping them outside the windows to recreate the sea of ​​light that has become a common image of the annual vigil at Victoria Park.
“Will Hong Kong be able to keep watch next year? A year is an eternity in politics and predictions are dangerous,” wrote Chinese scholar Jerome Cohen this week. “However, unless there is an unexpected change in leadership in Beijing, it certainly seems likely, especially in light of the impending (national security law), that Hong Kong can follow Macau in succumbing to the amnesia that has long been forced on land “.

CNN’s Chermaine Lee contributed to the report.

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