HONG KONG/BEIJING – As restrictions in Hong Kong have snuffed out what were once the largest vigils marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, cities like London, New York, Berlin and Taipei are left carrying the candle to commemorate the June 4 anniversary.
Tens of thousands of people have left Hong Kong since a 2020 national security law came into force, many moving to Taiwan, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, which are expected to be the focus of events in at least 30 cities around Sunday’s observance.
Hong Kong and Chinese authorities say the national security law was needed to restore stability to the financial hub after mass protests in 2019.
Residents of the former British colony, returned to China in 1997, increasingly fear retribution for broaching sensitive subjects like Tiananmen.
“There are many things Hong Kong people can’t do anymore,” said Steven Chow, who emigrated to Britain in 2021 with his wife and two children and will join a candlelight vigil in London’s Kingston area. “Wherever there are such commemoration activities, I will take part.”
In mainland China, any mention of the Tiananmen Square crackdown – where Chinese troops opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds if not thousands, according to rights groups – is taboo and the subject is heavily censored.
China at the time blamed the unrest on counter-revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the Communist Party and has never provided a full death toll.
Asked about the incident and global vigils on Friday, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the government “has come to a clear conclusion about the political turmoil in the late 1980s”, without elaborating.
Security in China tends to intensify in the run-up to June 4 every year. Authorities have imposed travel curbs on some activists, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
In the southern city of Zhuzhou on Saturday, activist Chen Siming was detained after he sent a tweet commemorating June 4, Human Rights Watch said.
Calls to the Zhuzhou public security bureau seeking comment went unanswered on Friday. Reuters could not reach Chen but confirmed the incident with a friend who said he remains in detention.
Asked about the report, China’s foreign ministry said it was not aware of the situation, but added that anyone who breaks the law will be punished.
In Hong Kong, an annual candlelight vigil in a downtown park that used to attract tens of thousands was prohibited from 2020 to 2022 due to Covid restrictions.
No organisation applied to host a vigil this year. The park will host a Chinese food carnival on Sunday, organised by dozens of pro-China groups.
Hong Kong leader John Lee, asked this week if it was legal to mourn in public those killed in 1989, said, “Everybody should act in accordance with the law,” without giving specifics.
Under Hong Kong law, police permission is required only for public processions of more than 30 people, or public meetings of more than 50.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organised the city’s annual Tiananmen candlelight vigils, disbanded in 2021 after the arrests of its key leaders, including barrister Chow Hang-tung.
A Tiananmen memorial museum was reopened by overseas activists in New York this week after one in Hong Kong was closed in June 2021.
Three public sculptures marking June 4 have been dismantled in Hong Kong since 2021, and all books on the crackdown have been removed from public libraries over the past year.
Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, whose “Pillar of Shame” was taken down in 2021 from the University of Hong Kong, installed a replica in a Berlin square this year.
“The Chinese people around the world who escaped China, they are being connected and make pressure for China to change the system,” Galschiot said. “This is the only way we can change China in the end.”