Dozens arrested in Hong Kong on Tiananmen crackdown anniversary
Hong Kong police have detained dozens of people on charges of “violating public peace”, including a woman holding a bouquet of flowers and a man holding a candle, during a crackdown on commemorations of the anniversary of the bloodshed on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Restrictions in Hong Kong have stifled the once-biggest vigils that marked the anniversary of Chinese troops’ bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, leaving cities like Taipei, London, New York and Berlin to keep alive the memory of June 4, 1989.
Near Victoria Park on Sunday night, the previous site of annual vigils, hundreds of police officers conducted stop and search operations and deployed armored vehicles and police vans.
Police took more than a dozen people to the scene, according to Reuters news agency, including 67-year-old activist Alexandra Wong, who was carrying a bouquet of flowers, a man holding a copy of “35th of May,” a play on the Tiananmen performance and an elderly man standing alone on a street corner holding a candle.
“The regime wants you to forget it, but you can’t forget it… It [China] wants to whitewash the whole history,” said Chris To, 51, who visited the park in a black T-shirt and was searched by police.
“We have to use our bodies and word of mouth to tell others what happened.”
In a statement, police said 11 men and 12 women aged between 20 and 74 were detained on suspicion of “disturbing public order at the scene”.
Four more people were arrested on Saturday for “incendiary” acts and “disorderly conduct”, and another four on suspicion of disturbing public order.
Discussions about the actions in Tiananmen Square – when the Chinese Communist Party sent troops and tanks to quell peaceful protests – are highly sensitive to the Chinese authorities and commemoration is banned on the mainland.
Hundreds – more than 1,000 by some estimates – were killed.
Commemorations of the event have also become increasingly off-limits in Hong Kong since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, effectively barring anyone from holding commemorative events.
After the enactment of the security law, Tiananmen-related visual spectacles, including statues in universities, were also removed. Three leaders of the group that organized the vigil were charged with subversion under the law. The group itself disbanded in 2021 after being informed by police that it was under investigation into working for foreign groups, an allegation the group denied.
Most recently, books about the event have been pulled from public library shelves.
Ahead of the anniversary, senior officials in Hong Kong warned people to abide by the national security law, but declined to clarify whether commemorative activities were illegal under the law. According to local media, authorities have also tightened security across Hong Kong, deploying up to 6,000 police officers, including riot and counter-terrorism officers.
Following Sunday’s arrests, the office of United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a tweet it was “alarmed by reports of detentions” in Hong Kong and called for “the release of anyone detained for the exercising freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
Amnesty International also condemned the detentions, saying the use of colonial-era sedition charges against activists and the persistence of non-conforming voices “exposes the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience”.
It added: “The Hong Kong government’s shameful campaign to prevent people from celebrating this anniversary reflects the censorship of China’s central government and is an insult to those who died in the crackdown on the Square of Heavenly Heaven. Peace.”
Despite the anniversary crackdown, some Hong Kong individuals and businesses quietly marked June 4.
A shop gave away candles, while a bookstore displayed archive material in Tiananmen Square. Imprisoned Hong Kong activist Chow Hang-tung, one of the leaders of a group called The Alliance that used to organize the June 4 vigils, said on Facebook she would go on a 34-hour hunger strike.
In Beijing, meanwhile, Tiananmen Square was crowded with tourists taking pictures under the watchful eye of police and other personnel, but with no clear sign of heightened security.
Ahead of the anniversary, a group of mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen Square crackdown sought redress and issued a statement renewing their call for “truth, reparation and accountability”.
“Though 34 years have passed, the pain of losing our loved ones in that one night has tormented us to this day,” the group said in a statement from New York-based watchdog Human Rights in China.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning, when asked about the government’s response to events around the world to mark the anniversary, said in Beijing on Friday that the government had already reached a “clear conclusion about the political turmoil in the late 1980s”.
In democratically-governed Taiwan, the last remaining part of the Chinese-speaking world where the birthday can be freely celebrated, hundreds of people attended a memorial at Freedom Square in Taipei, where a statue of the “Pillar of Shame” was displayed.
Kacey Wong, an artist who is one of dozens of Hong Kong residents who have moved to Taiwan, said more than 30 years of commemoration of the 1989 protests have made it a part of life.
Wong said an artist friend, Sanmu Chen, was detained along with others when they attempted to stage a public street performance in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay.
“So it’s all ingrained in our subconscious that we should care about and practice our sympathy for other people who yearn for democracy and freedom,” Wong said.
Taiwan Vice President William Lai, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in the January elections, wrote on his Facebook page that the memory of what happened in Beijing in 1989 must be preserved.
“The June 4 commemoration event is still held in Taipei, showing that democracy and authoritarianism are the main differences between Taiwan and China,” he said.
Vigils were also held around the world, from Japan to Australia, with people holding candles standing next to images of the brutal crackdown.
In Sydney, dozens of protesters gathered at City Hall chanting “Free Hong Kong” while holding up yellow umbrellas, the symbol of pro-democracy protests since 2014, and placards.
— Frances Hui 許穎婷 (@frances_hui) June 5, 2023
And in London, before marching to the Chinese embassy, protesters staged a reenactment with a blow-up tank and women dressed in white, recreating a statue of liberty erected in 1989 in Tiananmen Square.
A 59-year-old poet from China’s Sichuan province told AFP news agency at the rally in Trafalgar Square that his family fled shortly after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“Chinese of my generation know what happened, but the young people don’t really,” said the man, who declined to be named for fear of Chinese reprisals.
“Their parents, their grandparents, need to keep up with the knowledge and we all need to remember events abroad like this one.”