Hong Kongers are seeking innovative ways to commemorate the victims of China’s deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown after authorities banned an annual vigil and vowed to stamp out any protests come Friday’s anniversary.
Discussion of tanks and troops quelling peaceful democracy protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989 is all but forbidden in the mainland and there is heavy censorship of the images from the crackdown so well known in the rest of the world.
But in semi-autonomous Hong Kong the date has been remembered with huge candlelight vigils in Victoria Park for the last three decades.
Last year’s vigil was banned for the first time because of the coronavirus, but thousands defied police and rallied anyway.
Much has changed in Hong Kong over the last year as authorities seek to snuff out the city’s pro-democracy movement using a sweeping national security law that criminalizes much dissent.
This year’s vigil has been banned again, ostensibly because of the coronavirus – although Hong Kong has not recorded an unexplained locally transmitted case in more than a month.
Officials have also warned that the security law could be wielded against Tiananmen mourners.
So Hong Kongers are getting creative.
Local artist Kacey Wong has collected hundreds of spent candle stubs from previous vigils and plans to give them to residents on Friday night.
“It is time to redistribute them to the people of Hong Kong so they can collect them, preserve them and put them in a safe place,” Wong told AFP.
Wong has previously turned the candles into artworks but will give them away this year at two stores of local clothing brand Chickeeduck, which sells pro-democracy merchandise.
“Each burned candle contains a person’s mourning towards those who sacrificed themselves in pursuit of democracy, as well as one’s longing for democracy, a mix of complex emotions,” explained Wong.
“It’s a testimony of hope…. I hope they can continue to shine the way towards freedom and democracy.”
During last year’s vigil, police took a back seat once crowds massed and then dispersed peacefully in Victoria Park – although they later arrested ringleaders, some of whom have since been jailed.
Authorities appear to be taking a more proactive approach this year.
Police say they plan to have about 3,000 officers on standby and will stop crowds before they gather in the park, which is now overlooked by a new unit of Chinese mainland security agents based in a luxury hotel.
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau has warned that attending an unlawful protest can carry five years in jail, and one year for those who publicize rallies.
Pro-Beijing figures say popular slogans shouted at the Tiananmen vigils such as “End one-party rule” and “Bring democracy to China” are now illegal.
Security Minister John Lee has said the security law will be used against anyone who “organizes, plans or carries out any illegal means to damage or overthrow the fundamental system under the Chinese constitution.”
On Tuesday, hygiene inspectors visited a newly reopened Tiananmen museum that is run by the same group organiszng the annual vigil.
The inspectors said the venue was operating without the required licenses and the museum closed its doors the following day.
‘Refuse to forget’
But activists say authorities will struggle to eliminate all acts of commemoration in a city that still seethes with resentment towards Beijing after 2019’s huge and often violent democracy protests were stamped out.
Historically, the Tiananmen vigil candles are lit at 8.09 pm – representing 1989.
Albert Ho – a now-jailed former lawmaker and one of the vigil organizers – suggested Hong Kongers could light candles or shine mobile phone lights in their local neighborhoods.
“We can regard the whole of Hong Kong as Victoria Park,” he told the South China Morning Post before he was sentenced last week for attending previous democracy protests.
Social media presents another avenue.
Artist Pak Sheung-chuen has called on residents to write the numbers six and four — representing June 4 – on light switches as a way to memorise Tiananmen every time they turn them on.
“Guard the truth and refuse to forget,” Pak said on Facebook.
Designer Chan Ka-hing posted another idea on social media. He printed a black rectangle with a 6:4 ratio on a white t-shirt and said others were welcome to copy the design.
District councillor Debby Chan said she plans to mourn Tiananmen by holding a poetry reading and sharing session with residents in her neighbourhood.
“Commemorating June 4 has always been part of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” she told AFP.
“This is one of the most signature events of our movement. If we give up now, the red lines will only come closer in the future.”