HONG KONG – Richard Tsoi remembers being overwhelmed when he watched Victoria Park turn into a “sea of lights” on June 4, 1990 as hundreds of thousands of people held candles in honor of the victims of the military action in Beijing’s Heavenly Square Peace lifted a year earlier.
“It changed me,” said the pro-democracy activist – at the time still a student in a British colony. He hasn’t missed an anniversary since then.
But while China is cementing its hold in Hong Kong, it has also curtailed its efforts to celebrate the occasion – just as it has long done in the mainland.
The authorities have banned the vigil for the second time in a row, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Police arrested one of their organizers on Friday and cordoned off large parts of the park to prevent unauthorized gatherings.
A museum dedicated to Tiananmen was also suddenly closed on Wednesday, just two days before this year’s anniversary, after authorities investigated the lack of licenses.
Critics say Beijing is trying not only to silence the tributes to the deadly 1989 event, but also to suppress pro-democracy activism in general as it more resolutely puts its troubled territory into orbit.
“It is a great disappointment that people cannot gather this year,” said Tsoi, now secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance, the group that organizes the vigil. “We cannot agree with your decision that it is due to Covid-19. We see that there is a political motive that the event was banned. “
The global financial center has kept Covid-19 infection rates relatively low, and there have been no locally transmitted cases in more than a week. Art fairs and football games, which have drawn thousands, are allowed to continue – although vaccine uptake has been very slow.
NBC News has reached out to Hong Kong police for a comment.
Tiananmen is heavily censored on the mainland, where Beijing has long tried to wash away the day’s events. An official death toll has never been published, but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.
When asked about the deadly crackdown on the pro-democracy protests, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s position on Thursday that its response to the “political unrest” of 1989 was correct.
So far, Hong Kong has been one of only two cities on Chinese soil, alongside Macau, to commemorate the anniversary of the event. June 4th became a calendar day for many and the vigil a powerful symbol of democratic hope.
But Tsoi won’t light a candle in Victoria Park on Friday.
Despite an official ban on the vigil last year, thousands of people gathered for a somber but defiant memorial. A total of 26 pro-democracy figures – including Tsoi – were charged with attending the unauthorized meeting and inciting others to do so. Four, including Joshua Wong, were sentenced to prison terms in early May after pleading guilty. Others are waiting to be sentenced.
That year, Tsoi said he had no choice but to urge people to remember June 4th “another way.”
“The safety of our people is the most important thing,” he said.
After a comprehensive national security law was passed last year, pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong fear that their rights and freedoms are slowly being stolen. Beijing pushed through election changes and arrested hundreds of activists when it suppressed the opposition, leading many to flee the city and pursue activism abroad.
Activists argue that the June 4th ban on the vigil is another example of “political repression” on the mainland.
“The vigil in Victoria Park is the symbol of Hong Kong’s freedom. But the Communist Party can no longer tolerate the Hong Kong people using the June 4th massacre to condemn their regime, ”exiled activist Sunny Cheung told NBC News.
“It is really painful to leave Hong Kong at this critical moment because Hong Kong is in danger,” said Cheung. “We hope that Hong Kong residents can use other means if the authoritarian regime takes action against the city.”
City guide Carrie Lam did not comment on the commemorations, just said that citizens must respect the law, as well as the Communist Party, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia Tiananmen Revisited, told NBC News that the manner in which this year’s event was canceled was “extremely significant”.
“It is unthinkable to warn explicitly about punishments for people in black clothing and to light candles,” said Lim. “The use of so many officials shows that the event is monitored almost exactly as the massacre, and comparable [chanting slogans] with Subversion shows that their motives are political. “
The US State Department on Friday issued a statement of support for those who stand up for the victims and pursue the truth about the events.
“The courage of the brave people who stood shoulder to shoulder on June 4th reminds us that we must never stop seeking transparency about the events of that day, including a full list of those killed, detained or missing,” it said in the statement said, adding that such demands reverberated in the struggle for political rights in Hong Kong.
Many people have come up with alternative ways to celebrate the anniversary.
The jailed activist Jimmy Sham said on his Facebook page that he plans to “light a cigarette at 8:00 pm”.
Artist Pak Sheung-chuen on Monday called for people to write the numbers six and four – representing June 4th – on light switches to remember the event every time they turn them on.
“Keep the truth and refuse to forget it,” he said in a post on Facebook.
An independent bookstore organized a lottery on June 4th where customers can choose from specific numbers for discounts. Some churches will hold masses to commemorate the incident.
On Friday, Tsoi lights a candle in his own home for the first time in more than 30 years.
“We must never forget. We have to keep our history, ”he said.
Despite Beijing’s increasing crackdown, he remains hopeful for the city’s future.
“I have faith in Hong Kong,” he said.