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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong activists fear first ban on Tiananmen vigil won't be last

Police cite virus, but democracy supporters see pretext for Beijing's control

HONG KONG -- Jeremy Wong was 16 when he first attended the annual vigil in Hong Kong that marks the anniversary of China's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Wong, now 36, has joined tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong's Victoria Park every year since, honoring the lives lost with candlelight and seeking accountability for the deadly crackdown. He participated over the years despite occasional heavy rain and thunderstorms.

But this year, a police ban on the vigil will hold him back.

For the first time in three decades, Hong Kong authorities refused to permit the rally, citing "public health concerns" and coronavirus-related restrictions on gatherings of more than eight people, according to an official letter shared with Nikkei.

The virus outbreak is largely under control in Hong Kong, with only a few new cases reported in the past two months.

"Offices, schools and even karaoke bars have reopened. I don't understand why a vigil held in an open space is not OK," Wong said. "But the police banned it straight away. The motive is obvious."

The ban follows moves by Beijing toward imposing a new security law on Hong Kong that city residents and Western governments alike regard as threatening the "one country, two systems" agreement under which China pledged civil liberties for the territory until 2047.

Lee cheuk-yan (Photo by Kenji Kawase) 

For Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy activist for 40 years and the chief organizer of the vigil, Hong Kong's ban is only "showing the world that 'one country, two systems' is over."

The gathering that lit thousands of candles at Victoria Park, even during severe weather, was "the symbol that the freedom has not yet been lost" despite being under Chinese sovereignty, Lee told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview Tuesday.

Lee heads the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements, which was established in May 1989 when the student-led protest for democracy in China was at its peak.

Though the movement in Beijing was crushed violently after a month, the Hong Kong group has lived on. For the past three decades, it has kept the territory as the only place on Chinese soil where mass gatherings to commemorate the Tiananmen protests take place.

In mainland China, any hints of the incident are neatly removed from public exposure. Even the numbers signifying the date of the crackdown -- "89" and "64" or the combination of both -- are considered sensitive and made unsearchable on the country's tightly controlled internet.

Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman now known as a "wolf warrior" diplomat for his aggressive defense of the government, repeated the familiar line of the Communist Party during the daily news conference Wednesday.

Asked about the Tiananmen crackdown 31 years ago, he called it a "political wind wave and a related problem at the end of the 1980s." Like his predecessors, Zhao refrained from mentioning the event by name.

This part of the question-and-answer session is omitted from the foreign ministry's official website, which publishes details of the daily pressers.

Despite Beijing's ongoing effort to bury the historic event, about 70% of Hong Kongers think "the Chinese government did the wrong thing" during the Tiananmen incident, while 60% say Beijing should reverse its official stand on the event, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

Lee thinks the outlook is bleak for a vigil next year, even if the coronavirus is gone. Under the proposed national security protocols for Hong Kong, activities pertaining to "separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference" will be criminalized.

Critics said this would let Beijing clamp down further on dissent and limit free speech. "We don't even know whether we could exist next year," Lee said.

Beyond fears about the future of the vigil, Lee anticipates a devastating fate for himself and other pro-democracy activists.

"We have to be prepared that we will become Chinese dissidents," he said, referring to people such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who spent years in prison after calling for democratic reforms in China.

Lee and his colleagues have supported these individuals, but "I feel maybe it's our turn now in Hong Kong to be punished like Chinese dissidents."

Emily Lau Wai-hing (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Emily Lau Wai-hing, another veteran democracy activist in the territory, has considered this possibility for a long time. The onetime journalist directly questioned Margaret Thatcher in 1984 on whether it was "morally defensible" to deliver Hong Kong's people "into the hands of communist dictatorship," when the British prime minister visited the colony after signing the handover treaty with China.

"Definitely, I didn't rule it out then," Lau told Nikkei about the threat of losing civil liberties. "Because, we are talking about communist dictatorship, and they behave in a very barbaric way."

Lau, wearing a badge that read "vindicate June 4" when being interviewed Tuesday, is wary of possible clashes on Thursday night. Though the organizer is urging people to join an online commemoration and hold candlelight vigils across the city instead, some netizens have called for defying the police ban and attending the planned vigil in Victoria Park.

"If there's violent clashes, that would be terrible," she said, "and it will send a very bad signal from Hong Kong ... if we have it on June 4th."

Agnes Chow Ting (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

For Agnes Chow Ting, who was born years after the Tiananmen crackdown, the annual commemoration is "something we should not forget and should continue on."

The activist from pro-democracy group Demosisto also thinks that citing the virus to ban the vigil "is just a pretext," she told Nikkei on Tuesday.

Chow is pessimistic about whether the event can be held next year. The 23-year-old even ponders whether "I am still alive or not a year later," after the national security laws take effect.

But similar to Lee and Lau, Chow is ready to continue the fight in Hong Kong, including keeping the vigil going.

"During the Umbrella Movement, we had hope," she said, citing the failed 79-day confrontation in 2014 by democracy activists and other residents against Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government. "Now, it's only despair."

But "that is our motivation which is pushing us forward now -- not to make the situation even more despairing," she said. "So, we need to keep on fighting."

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