A Hong Kong barrister involved in organising the city’s now cancelled vigil to mourn lives lost in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was arrested on Friday, the event’s 32nd anniversary.

The suppression of the annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong is seen as symbolic of the erosion of the city’s civil and political freedoms since Beijing imposed a new security law on it. The city was the only place to mark the anniversary of the massacre in Communist party-ruled China.

Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and activist, was arrested outside her office building. She had vowed to go ahead with the Tiananmen vigil anyway after authorities cancelled it, citing social distancing rules associated with Covid-19.

Hong Kong police confirmed they had arrested two people for advertising or publicising an unauthorised assembly. The identity of the second person was not immediately available.

As vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the vigil, she told the Financial Times this week: “Nowadays the risk of any sort of political participation is very high, [the authorities] are controlling people with fear.”

Ahead of the event, police and the security bureau warned people could face jail sentences of five years were they to participate in the vigil.

The authorities refused to say whether slogans traditionally spoken at the event were in breach of the national security law, which carries penalties of up to life in prison for crimes such as subversion.

Beijing introduced the law almost a year ago, sparking a wider crackdown on civil society, education and the media.

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Critics argued the intervention eroded the autonomy and freedom of expression promised to Hong Kongers by China under the “one country, two systems” model during the 1997 handover from the UK.

Authorities deployed officers to guard “high-risk” protest areas and sealed off a part of Victoria Park, on Hong Kong island, where the vigil is traditionally held.

“The continuous annual commemoration was a key indicator that Hong Kong still enjoys liberty that mainland China does not. Now it is no longer tolerated,” said Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who has studied protests in China.

He said the cancellation was a milestone in the process of “homogenisation” of the political environment between Hong Kong and the mainland. “The implication of all this to China is that China’s confrontational stance toward the world is more entrenched.”

Despite the threats, some vowed to find ways to mark the event. An activist group planned to set up a street stall as a memorial in one part of the city while seven Catholic churches have also planned masses for Friday.

But others voiced concern over the extent of the crackdown. Cheung Yui-fai, 52, a high school teacher, said educators lived in fear of investigations into the content of their classes by the education bureau.

“In the past when there was more freedom, schools would organise activities related to June 4, including dramas and putting up display boards. But now I think there is no space in schools for those,” he added.

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