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Under pressure, Hong Kongers remember Tiananmen

Beijing tries to snuff out commemorations of the 33rd anniversary of the massacre of peaceful protesters


A police officer asks a pro-democracy activist to leave Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on Saturday. Associated Press/Photo by Kin Cheung

Under pressure, Hong Kongers remember Tiananmen

Until recent years, more than 100,000 Hong Kong residents gathered annually in Victoria Park to mark the anniversary of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But on Saturday — this year’s anniversary — city police officers patrolled the park, and the government closed certain areas to prevent “unauthorized assemblies ... which affect public safety and public order, and the chance of a virus spread.”

This is the third consecutive year officials have banned the vigil, claiming health reasons during the pandemic. In reality, the vigil is another casualty of the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 that criminalizes dissent. Residents had few places to gather publicly to mark the anniversary this year. But that didn’t keep them from finding ways to honor the protesters.

More than 150 people have been arrested under the national security law since it took effect, including the organizers of the vigil. Authorities charged barrister Chow Hang-tung and former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho with “incitement to subvert state power.” Their organization, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, had organized the vigils for 30 years. But it disbanded in September due to political pressure. Hong Kong now has over 1,000 political prisoners, according to the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.

Since authorities have banned the vigil, many Hong Kong residents had turned to religious services to mark the anniversary. But this year, Catholic churches, citing legal risks, canceled the June 4 Mass, an annual event organized by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese. Frontline staff and some of the commission’s members worried it would violate the national security law, the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office told local media.

The Chinese government has denied the bloody 1989 crackdown, when the military arrived with fleets of tanks to clear pro-democracy student protesters from Tiananmen Square. It has censored any mention of the incident on the mainland. In December, Hong Kong universities removed massacre monuments, citing legal concerns. The memorials are finding new homes abroad. Democracy advocates unveiled a replica of the 26-foot Pillar of Shame in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday and another one at the University of Oslo in Norway on Wednesday. Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 protests, is planning to establish a Tiananmen memorial museum in the United States after authorities shut down the Hong Kong Alliance’s museum last year.

Although police searched citizens within the park’s vicinity in Causeway Bay on Saturday, many people carried out small acts of resistance: strolling with lit-up phones, placing electronic candles in random locations, displaying a toy tank, and wearing white masks with a black “X” over them. Officers arrested six people. The charges included promoting unlawful assembly, obstructing police, and possessing an offensive weapon.

Hong Kong residents joined a prayer meeting livestreamed from Taiwan on Friday and organized by exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy pastors. The Tamsui Church service, streamed on YouTube, opened with “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” an unofficial anthem of Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Organizers played a 15-minute montage of a documentary and news footage linking the pro-democracy protests in 1989 Beijing with the 2019 protests, when the city’s riot police clamped down on activists.

Preaching at the service, Pastor Sun Po-ling reminded believers that the Chinese regime does not have the last word: Jesus, who is the truth, does. Several Hong Kong pastors who have emigrated to the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia spoke to participants in pre-recorded videos. They insisted on remembering the June 4 massacre and asked God to vindicate the victims. The attendees in Taiwan turned on battery-operated candles and placed them at the front of the church.

Churches in Hong Kong found ways to keep the anniversary, as well. Without specifying any commemorative purpose, Hong Kong’s Chinese Methodist Church opened its doors Saturday evening to provide citizens a place to pray silently. On May 30, Ward Memorial Methodist Church hosted a closed-door prayer meeting for the peace of the nation, including prayers for those who “33 years ago gave their lives for the pursuit of justice,” the Hong Kong–based Christian Times reported.

Umbrella City Cyberchurch held a virtual prayer meeting Saturday at midnight. About 30 Hong Kong Christians took part in the Facebook-streamed event that displayed only a black screen. During the hourlong silent meeting, participants commented online using emojis of candles and praying hands, as well as prayers for God’s justice. Some quoted Bible verses, such as Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

“To remember is to resist,” said Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao during Amnesty International’s May 22 livestream discussion on China’s erasure of history. Teng is living in exile in the United States. “If nobody remembers and testifies,” he said, “the suffering of the people will never stop, and the perpetrators will continue their crimes with impunity.”

Over 300 Hong Kong citizens, including prominent pastors, signed a joint prayer statement that ran as a full-page ad in the Christian Times. The statement said the signers experience tears and worries when recalling the 1989 massacre, but added that “we can still persist and anticipate the coming of the dawn that turns suffering into blessing.” Others bought ad space for the simple message, “We do not forget.”

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