Hong Kong police have arrested a prominent barrister for allegedly promoting an unauthorised assembly on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, as thousands of officers were deployed to enforce a ban on protests and gatherings across the city.
Police confirmed that barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung, vice-chairwoman of the group which organises annual vigils for the victims of China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, was arrested. A 20-year-old male was also detained on suspicion of publicising an unlawful assembly through social media posts.
“Their online remarks involved advertising and calling on others to participate or attend banned public activities,” senior superintendent Law Kwok-hoi told reporters.
Discussion of Beijing’s brutal military crackdown on the evening of 3 June and morning of 4 June, 1989 is all but forbidden on the mainland. And Hong Kong’s traditional status as the only place in China where large-scale commemorations were tolerated appeared to be coming to an end.
Thousands of police were deployed on Friday to enforce a ban on the city’s traditional candlelight vigil, which has drawn huge crowds to Victoria Park on 4 June for more than three decades. The day has traditionally served as a display of pro-democracy people power that China has made clear it will no longer tolerate.
Authorities banned this year’s gathering citing the coronavirus pandemic – although Hong Kong has not recorded an untraceable local transmission in more than a month, and held large public events. Police have also cited the national security law in warning people not to gather for unnamed events, and reminded the public of the recent convictions of some activists.
Police say that thousands of officers will be on standby to halt any “unlawful assemblies” while officials have also warned that a sweeping new national security law could be wielded against Tiananmen mourners.
Public broadcaster RTHK, citing unnamed sources, reported police would have 7,000 officers on the streets on Friday, conducting stop-and-search operations throughout the day.
While last year’s vigil was also denied permission because of the pandemic, thousands simply defied the ban.
But much has changed in Hong Kong over the last year as authorities seek to snuff out the city’s pro-democracy movement using the security law to criminalise much dissent. Police arrested 24 activists as organisers of the vigil, and several were convicted and jailed.
Most of the city’s most prominent democracy figures – many of whom would organise and attend the annual Tiananmen vigils – are in jail, have been arrested or have fled overseas, after Beijing imposed a controversial national security law in Hong Kong last year.
Veteran political journalist Ching Cheong, who was jailed in China for three years, said the perseverance of Hong Kong in holding the vigil had made it “the conscience of China”.
“It’s very sad to see that, starting last year, authorities have tried to stamp out memorial activity purely for the selfish sake of the CCP to cling to power,” Ching said.
“I don’t think marking the anniversary of the crackdown itself will lead to the collapse of the communist regime, but it’s evident proof the regime is extremely afraid of people knowing the atrocities that it has committed.”
The threat of mass arrests on Hong Kong has forced those who would normally attend the vigil to think creatively. Activists have called on residents to light candles in their own homes or neighbourhoods on Friday evening, or post commemoration messages on social media.
One campaign has called for Hong Kongers to write the numbers 4 and 6 – representing 4 June – on light switches at home.
“A regime can ban an assembly but it can never ban the indelible grievances in people’s hearts,” Lee Cheuk-yan, a now jailed democracy activist, wrote in a message published on his Facebook page on Thursday. “I hope everyone can find your own way to light a candle by the window, on the road, wherever that can be seen by others, to continue our mourning,” he added.
Vigils are planned in cities like Tokyo, Sydney, London, Berlin and Washington.
In mainland China, the Tiananmen anniversary is usually marked with a dramatic increase in online censorship and the square in Beijing being cordoned off.
Ahead of this year’s anniversary, the Tiananmen Mothers support group made new appeal in a statement. It also said that 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 United States said on Thursday it stands “with the people of China” in their fight for human rights. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country will “honor the sacrifices of those killed 32 years ago, and the brave activists who carry on their efforts today in the face of ongoing government repression.”
In Britain, six former British foreign secretaries – including Jack Straw and David Miliband - have urged Boris Johnson to rally international action over Beijing’s Hong Kong actions in an open letter. They called on the Prime Minister to “ensure that the crisis in Hong Kong is on the agenda” at the G7 leaders’ summit in Cornwall next week.
“As the human rights situation in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate, we hope you will personally recognise the pronounced need for international leadership from the UK government on this matter,” the former foreign secretaries wrote.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan’s people would not forget what happened in 1989.
“I believe for all Taiwanese who are proud of their freedom and democracy, they will never forget about this day and will firmly stick with their faith, unshaken by challenges,” she said.
In a statement sent to Reuters, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the island’s government was “smearing and attacking” China when it should be focused on fighting a spike in domestic Covid-19 cases.
“In the face of increasing coronavirus infections and death, this veil they are using to attack others is a bit too much.”
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report