HONG KONG -- Despite an official ban in Hong Kong against public commemoration of the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown against student and civilian protesters, people found ways to mourn the event.
The remembrances took part even though most of Victoria Park, where annual candlelight vigils have taken place over the past three decades, had been closed off by police since midafternoon, with warnings issued throughout the evening to people who gathered around the park and other locations to pay tribute to the protests and victims of the crackdown that took place 32 years ago in Beijing.
Ka, a 47 year-old woman who wished to be identified only by her surname, handed out 5,000 small plastic votives to passersby at subway stations near the park with seven other friends. On the surface of the plastic case, there is a message that reads, "Support the Tiananmen Mothers" in both Chinese and English. Tiananmen Mothers is a movement organized by family members who lost loved ones in the 1989 incident.
Carrying candles or wearing black, as Ka was, could be interpreted as a commemoration and therefore put a person at risk of arrest for defying the ban.
Ka was surrounded by several police officers patrolling around the outside of the park when placing a votive on a fence to let others take photos. However, Ka was not alone as hundreds of people dressed in black strolled around the park, using their smartphones as candle substitutes.
"Tonight, we not only remember those who died in mainland China 32 years ago, but it is also a fight for freedom in Hong Kong," Ka told Nikkei Asia. Even though many of her friends were scared to take part this year, Ka continued her ritual for the 32nd consecutive year -- even if she couldn't be physically inside the park.
Lui Yuk-lin, a longtime pro-democracy activist, appeared in front of the Liaison Office, the de facto top representative headquarters of Beijing in the territory. She conducted traditional Chinese-style mourning rituals alone, outnumbered by dozens of police officers surrounding her.
"In the past, all of my friends and colleagues came, but this year, it was only me. Nonetheless, I'll still keep it up," she told reporters after her ceremony.
Many other people, including outspoken retired bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen, turned up in churches across the city on Friday night to attend special services to mourn those who died in the crackdown, defying attacks by pro-Beijing groups calling them "cults" and accusing them of "inciting chaos in the name of religious rituals."
As religious venues are only allowed to operate at limited capacity due to COVID social distancing rules, people gathered outside the churches and lit candles as they prayed.
"There are more people than I expected, especially given how bad the situation is," said a middle-aged man who gave his name as Tong. "People who turned up have really refreshed my hope on the city."
Meanwhile, silent chat rooms to commemorate the event have attracted thousands of participants on audio-based social app Clubhouse.
The police has kept themselves busy trying to enforce the ban. Images of candles, rebellious graffiti and old news clips about the Tiananmen protests turned up across the city by Friday, but officials moved swiftly to cover messages they deemed sensitive with smears of paint or drop cloths, following on their refusal to allow an annual vigil to proceed in the park.
Announcing the shutdown of the park, senior superintendent Liauw Ka-kei told reporters this "would be the most effective measure in order to prevent the happening of any unauthorized assembly."
The closure was based on the Public Order Ordinance, legislated in 1967 when the colonial British government was fighting waves of leftist riots, heavily influenced by China during the Cultural Revolution.
"The Hong Kong Police will use whatever measure in order to maintain public order and public safety," Liauw added, while declining to confirm media reports that 7,000 officers would be deployed to stop any evening gatherings, calling that "an operational matter" but insisting the force had fielded "sufficient manpower." Officers also reportedly began stopping cars using the main southbound tunnel to Hong Kong Island to screen for suspicious person or items.
Officers arrested Chow Hang-tung, vice chair of vigil organizer Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, on Friday morning on suspicion of promoting an unauthorized assembly.
The 36-year-old barrister had told reporters that although the alliance had called off the vigil, she would light a candle at the park on her own, despite the high risk of arrest. A friend said after she was detained that Chow would fast unless she is allowed to light a candle.
A police spokesman said Friday morning that Chow and a 20-year-old deliveryman had been detained due to signs they had appealed online for people to go to the park despite the vigil ban. If convicted of publicizing or advertising an unauthorized assembly, they could be sentenced to up to a year in prison. By 11:30 p.m. local time, police arrested another six people between the ages of 20 and 75, for breaching the ban on unauthorized assembly.
This is the second year in a row in which Hong Kong has banned the Tiananmen commemoration, citing COVID-19 social distancing restrictions even though the city has not recorded any untraceable local cases in over a month.
Last June 4, tens of thousands of people defied the police ban to attend the peaceful gathering. But the new national security law Beijing imposed on the city almost four weeks later, which carries maximum penalties of life imprisonment for subversion and other new crimes, has muzzled many of the city's opposition voices.
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong last month was sentenced to 10 months in prison for joining last year's unauthorized observance.
Three other defendants who pled guilty in the case received sentences of four to six months. Another 20 people, including Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai and leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance, still face trial in the case.
Rally participants usually have chanted demands for China to "end one-party rule." With the country due to officially mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party on July 1, pro-Beijing officials have warned that such chants could violate the security law.
"The ban on the vigil is ridiculous. What has been going on for the past 30 years has suddenly become illegal," Albert Ho, a former lawmaker and longtime organizer of the event, told Nikkei Asia a few days before he was jailed on a charge related to another protest.
Ho said that he would commemorate the event in custody but urged the public to be "wise and flexible" to avoid legal risks.
"The most important thing is to pass on the truth about June 4," he said. "We shall never forget what happened."
Wu Lihong, a member of the Tiananmen Mothers, published a message online Thursday demanding Beijing conduct a thorough review of the crackdown and compensate victims' relatives. She urged China to hold officials accountable for the bloodshed.
The words of Wu, who lost her 35-year-old husband then, were originally supposed to be heard in Victoria Park in a prerecorded video Friday evening, as in past years. In 2019, the last approved vigil drew over 180,000 people.
In Wu's message, she thanked the citizens of Hong Kong for their persistent support and said she was thankful for friends committed to "respecting lives, ardently loving peace and standing against killings."
Meanwhile, Hong Kong's June 4 Museum was forced to close earlier this week after government inspectors declared its operations to be illegal, since it lacks a public entertainment license.
Dozens of students joined an annual gathering to clean the "Pillar of Shame" statue on the University of Hong Kong campus, created as a memorial to the victims of 1989.
"Under the current atmosphere, many people fear expressing their opinions, despite being eager to do so. As a student, I think I have the capacity and the responsibility to go one step further," said student Tony Ng, who was joining the cleaning for the first time after participating in the park vigil previously. "I cannot back down because of the atmosphere in society. I need to continue doing what I should do."
"To be honest, I don't know how I can teach my students this part of history anymore," said a secondary school teacher. "You never know if anyone in the class, or their parents, will report on you."
Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Friday, "The vigil ban really shows how much the Hong Kong human rights environment has deteriorated."
"Now the Hong Kong government has effectively banned protests, regardless what the protests are about," she said. "Just two years ago, millions of people were on the street protesting. Now, no one can."
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement on Facebook that Taiwanese "will also not forget about the young people who sacrificed themselves on Tiananmen Square on this day 32 years ago," noting Hong Kong's traditional candlelight observance.
Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, U.S. Pacific Air Force commander, told reporters at an online press briefing on Friday, "There's no surprise to suppress the discussion and commemoration of Tiananmen Square [crackdown] because that's another example of Chinese Communist Party overplaying their hands and completely looking past human rights."
Anthony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state, in a statement Thursday said Washington "will continue to stand with the people of China as they demand that their government respect universal human rights," while seeking full transparency on those killed, detained or missing and honoring "the brave activists who carry on their efforts today in the face of ongoing government repression."
Beijing officials, however, have stuck to their version of the 1989 incident. Without referencing Tiananmen explicitly, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described the events Thursday as "those winds and waves that happened in the end of the 1980s" and said that China's actions were "completely correct."
Additional reporting by Stella Wong and Cora Zhu