“This is a time of hope,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former Hong Kong lawmaker. At that time, the city was eight years from being handed over from the British to Chinese control, and there was a feeling that young protesters across the border could change China for the better.
“For many Hong Kongers, we felt that 1997 was really hanging over our heads. But young people in China are demanding democracy, and we thought if they did, it would mean that Hong Kong should not survive. under a regime of authority.
That hope has been disheartened, however, as the People’s Liberation Army broke down protests on June 4. No official death has been released, but rights groups have estimated hundreds, if any, not thousands were killed. Tiananmen protests and the firing have been removed from Chinese history books, censors and controlled, organizers have been deported or arrested, and relatives of the deceased have been kept under strict surveillance.
On Monday, police refused permission for this year̵
7;s rally, citing ongoing restrictions on mass gatherings related to the coronavirus pandemic. For many of the democratic opposition, the irrationality rings: organizers say they will work with authorities to ensure a safe and distant society, and in the meantime market districts, subways, and public parks has been open for a few weeks with little issues.
Talking to journalists after announcing the ban, Lee said police had “suppressed our vigilance under the pretense that the gathering was banned.”
The police decision is carrying too much weight as it is feared that this week may be the last time to mark the anniversary freely. Last month, China announced that it would impose a draconian national security law in Hong Kong, in response to widespread and often violent anti-government protests last year.
The law criminalizes secession, sedition and subversion. It allowed Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong for the first time – leading to fears in many of the city that PLA members could be deployed on the streets should protest.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, Lee’s co-founder of organizing the Tiananmen vigil every year since 1990, has warned it could be banned under the new law, pointing to previous support of the activists have been condemned under similar national security laws in China and a longstanding opposition to “one party dictatorship.”
There is good reason to believe that the guard could be banned in the future. Last month, CY Leung, the former chief executive and high-ranking member of an advisory member of the Chinese government, predicted much, while recalling neighboring Macao – which already has national security law on the books – there is also an obstruction of the authorities.
The Tiananmen have had an inevitable impact on Hong Kong politics. The rallies were held in solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators leading the massacre, and many city activists traveled north to offer assistance and support.
After the crackdown, “Operation Yellow Bird” helped smash the protest organizations of Beijing and others who threatened to arrest the city, still after British territory. Some 500 people were extradited from China, according to the Hong Kong Alliance, along with student protest leaders such as Wu’er Kaixi, who famously argued Chinese Premier Li Peng was at the height of the demonstrations.
In the years after the crusade, British pressure grew to do more to protect Hong Kong under Chinese rule, and in 1994 then Governor Chris Patten held parliamentary elections in the democratic city throughout opportunity for the first time – a move that London has not approved and met with outrage in Beijing.
The Legislative Council next year will be the first and only time the parliament has a pro-democratic majority. It was disbanded and replaced by a Beijing-designated body once the Chinese governing body in the city was forced.
In the eight years after the Tiananmen, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers migrated abroad, though many returned soon after the strike after a fearsome crackdown did not panic and the city was enjoying an economic boom under its new leaders. Most of those returners have foreign passports in their natural pockets, however, ready to flee again if things turn negative.
A modified exodus may be on the horizon thanks to the new national security law. Following China’s announcement, the UK moved to expand some rights for British National (Overseas) passport holders, with about 300,000 in Hong Kong and up to 3 million citizens born in the city before 1997 eligible to apply. London has said that if the law goes ahead, BNO holders will be given a 12-month stay in the UK, out of 6-months, giving them a potential path to British citizenship.
What happens next?
For two decades of Chinese rule, Tiananmen’s reminder has always been something that has separated Hong Kong, a litmus test for whether the city’s independence and autonomy are still protected.
It has also served as an incubator of various political talents, often among the first demonstrations attended by many Hong Kongers. Many activists, including former leaders of the Umbrella Movement Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, spoke about the impact of the June 4 commemoration on their own political awakening.
Last year, city chief Carrie Lam, was pointed out at the annual rally as proof that “Hong Kong is a free society.”
“If there are public gatherings to express their views and feelings on a particular historical incident, we respect those views,” he said.
Asked this week about whether the gathering would be banned under the new national security law, Lam said “we have no existing law. We can handle it later.”
Hong Kong officials insist that legal concerns are overblown, and that the new offenses of sedition, subversion and caution apply only a small number of people, even if they admit they are is beyond darkness in Beijing’s plans.
In a statement to the law last week, the Hong Kong Alliance warned it was “like a knife to the neck of all Hong Kong people.”
“Although only a few were cut, it threatened the freedom of all 7 million,” the group said. “It is the implementation of the rule through fear of Hong Kong.”
To date, they are still rejecting that fear, even as coronavirus restrictions have kept plans for a mass rally. Smaller gatherings were held throughout the city, and the Alliance called on all residents to light candles at 8 pm, holding them out of their windows to recreate the sea of light became a standard image of the annual vigil at Victoria Park.
“Will Hong Kongers be able to hold the vigil next year? One year is a political eternity, and predictions are dangerous,” Chinese scholar Jerome Cohen wrote this week. “However, unless there is no change in leadership in Beijing, it is very likely, especially in the future (national security law), that Hong Kong could follow Macao in surrendering amnesia that has long been forced on the mainland.”
CNN’s Chermaine Lee provided reporting.