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Hong Kong bans vigil for Tiananmen Square victims for second year in row and arrests one of its organizers

WorldView: Activist arrested in Hong Kong
WorldView: Activist arrested in Hong Kong 02:58

Police arrested an organizer of Hong Kong's annual candlelight vigil remembering the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown and warned people not to attend the banned event Friday, as authorities mute China's last pro-democracy voices.

In past years, tens of thousands of people gathered in Hong Kong's Victoria Park to honor those who died when China's military put down student-led pro-democracy protests on June 4, 1989 and hundreds, if not thousands were killed.

The nighttime event in Victoria Park was banned for a second year under coronavirus pandemic restrictions, although the city hasn't had any cases for over six weeks.

The action comes amid sweeping moves to quell dissent in the city, including a new national security law, election changes and arrests of many activists who participated in pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019.

Hong Kong police in vehicles and on foot cordoned off parts of Victoria Park, including football fields and basketball pitches, to prevent any unauthorized gatherings. Police said they were aware of calls on social media urging people to turn up for the vigil.

Tiananmen anniversary in Hong Kong
Police officers stop a man to search him outside Hong Kong's Victoria Park on the 32nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, on June 4, 2021. LAM YIK / REUTERS

Taking part in an illegal gathering carries maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, while merely promoting such an event can result in a year in jail.

"Police appeal to members of the public to refrain from participating in, advertising or publicizing any unauthorized assemblies and prohibited gatherings," a government statement said.

At the University of Hong Kong, students took part in the annual washing of the "Pillar of Shame" sculpture, which was erected to remember the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Charles Kwok, the president of the students' union, said that the event was "legitimate and legal" and that they hoped to commemorate the people who sacrificed for freedom and democracy.

"For HKU students, in cleaning the Pillar of Shame, we shall learn how our predecessors defended the freedom of expression before, and we shall not easily give up," Kwok said.

Commemorations in Hong Kong on Tiananmen anniversary
Students clean the "Pillar of Shame" statue at the University of Hong Kong on the 32nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, on June 4, 2021. LAM YIK / REUTERS

Law Kwok-hoi, police senior superintendent, told reporters police had arrested a 36-year-old woman from the Hong Kong Alliance as well as a 20-year-old food delivery man for advertising and publicizing an unauthorized assembly on their social media accounts even after the vigil was banned.

Chow Hang Tung, vice chair of the group, was arrested Friday morning, according to the alliance, which organized the vigil and ran the June 4 Museum dedicated to the memory of Tiananmen.

After the ban was issued, Chow urged people to commemorate the event privately by lighting a candle wherever they are.

Last year, thousands went to Victoria Park to light candles and sing songs. Police later charged more than 20 activists including Chow for their participation in the event.

U.S. reacts

The U.S. State Department issued a statement of support for those advocating for victims and pursuing the truth about the events.

"The courage of the brave individuals who stood shoulder-to-shoulder on June 4 reminds us that we must never stop seeking transparency on the events of that day, including a full accounting of all those killed, detained, or missing," the statement said, adding that such demands echoed in the struggle for political rights in Hong Kong.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denounced the statement as interference in China's internal affairs and said the U.S. should "first look at itself in a mirror and reflect on its own poor record in human rights."

"With such a poor human rights record backed by iron-clad evidence, in what position can the U.S. lecture others on human rights?" Wang said, referencing the 1921 massacre of Black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, discrimination against minorities and U.S. actions in the Middle East.

Trying to erase crackdown from history books

China's ruling Communist Party has never allowed public events marking the military's attack on protesters and citizens, and security was increased in the Beijing square itself on Friday morning, with police checking pedestrians' IDs and tour buses shuttling Chinese tourists.

Authorities have squelched all discussion of the events on the mainland, where the few remaining activists and victims' advocates are put under increased police monitoring and taken away on involuntary "vacations" around the anniversary.

Chinese officials claim that the country's rapid economic development in the years since what they call the "political turmoil" of 1989 proves that decisions made at the time had been correct.

Along with the deaths of protesters and ordinary citizens, the events of 1989 caused considerable turmoil within the party, with the reformist general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, removed from office and placed under house arrest until his death in 2005.

Efforts to suppress public memory of the Tiananmen events have lately turned to Hong Kong, where the June 4 Museum was closed this week.

32nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, in Hong Kong
Vice-chairwoman of Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, Chow Hang-tung, poses with a candle on June 3, 2021 ahead of the next day's 32nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. LAM YIK / REUTERS

Time's impact on Tiananmen recollections

As Chinese authorities seek to curb remembrances, they also seem confident the passage of time will erase memories of the 1989 crackdown.

The government made no response to an appeal from Tiananmen Mothers, published on the Human Rights in China website, urging the party to release official records about the crackdown, provide compensation for those killed and injured and hold those responsible to account.

Tiananmen Mothers said 62 of its members have died since the group representing victims' relatives was founded in the late 1990s. It said many young Chinese have "grown up in a false sense of prosperous jubilance and enforced glorification of the government (and) have no idea of or refuse to believe what happened on June 4, 1989, in the nation's capital."

The suppression of the Tiananmen commemorations has been accompanied in recent years by harsh repression against religious and ethnic minorities in Tibet, the northwestern region of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, along with the sharp curtailing of political rights in Hong Kong.

"China's authoritarian regime has used another kind of force - enforced amnesia - in its attempts to bury the truth of the brutal crimes it committed against its people," Human Rights in China said in a statement online.

In self-governing Taiwan, activists who host an annual Tiananmen memorial that draws hundreds are moving mostly online as the island faces its worst virus outbreak of the pandemic. The New School for Democracy, an NGO, is setting up a temporary memorial pavilion Friday afternoon where people in small groups can leave flowers and other mementoes in honor of the date.

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