With Tiananmen gatherings banned, Hong Kongers privately remember

As Saturday night fell in Hong Kong, democracy activist Chiu Yan-loy turned off lights, lit several candles and observed a minute’s silence to commemorate those killed in China’s Tiananmen crackdown 33 years ago .

For the first time since 2000, when he began attending an annual vigil to mark the anniversary alongside tens of thousands of fellow Hong Kongers in the city’s Victoria Park, Chiu performed the ritual alone.

Hong Kong was once the notable exception to an effective blanket ban in China on discussing the events of June 4, 1989, when the government launched tanks and troops at peaceful protesters.

But in 2020, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law to stifle dissent after widespread and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests the previous year. Since then, large-scale public memory in the city has been wiped out.

This is the third year in a row that the vigil at Victoria Park has been banned, with the park closed late on Friday.

Police have warned the public that gathering to commemorate Tiananmen anywhere could violate the law.

But “the emotional connection to June 4 that Hong Kongers have goes far beyond any collective ritual,” Chiu told AFP, his face lit up by the flickering flames.

“It’s become part of our life now and it’s now about practicing what we believe in our day-to-day life.”

– “The truth will come out” –

The 36-year-old was a former standing committee member of the Hong Kong Alliance, a now disbanded group that was one of the organizers of the Victoria Park Vigil that had been held for more than three decades.

The Alliance and its leaders were charged with “inciting subversion” under the Security Act last year.

Chiu said people should not be discouraged by the situation in Hong Kong, saying it was not yet as bad as countries in Eastern Europe under the control of the Soviet Union, or in Taiwan during the time of martial law.

“We must not put ourselves down,” he said. “As long as we are willing to remember and pass it on, the truth will eventually come out.”

Chiu believes that many Hong Kongers, like him, will find their own way to commemorate June 4 despite warnings and threats from authorities.

For him, the vigil itself was not the most important thing.

“The main body is after everyone who was in it – as long as our hearts and minds remain unchanged, we won’t give up easily,” he said.

Former District Councilor Derek Chu, who has been handing out electronic candles from his office since Friday, also believes remembrance should not be confined to a specific location.

“In the struggle between a people and the government, it comes down to belief and memory, and place is less important,” Chu said.

Only 39 candles were distributed on Friday, he said, but he was not disappointed.

“Even at a low point in the (pro-democracy) movement, I don’t think people will forget June 4,” he said.

– ‘Transmit the memory’ –

Decades of commemoration are erased as Hong Kong is reshaped in the image of the mainland.

Chu’s alma mater, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), removed a ‘Goddess of Democracy’ statue from campus in December last year, saying the move was based on a risk assessment legal.

Earlier this week, four CUHK students placed 3D-printed miniatures of the “Goddess” in different locations on campus, creating a scavenger hunt for students and alumni.

“It looks like (the statue) was stolen,” Rebecca, one of the students behind the project, told AFP, using a pseudonym to protect her identity.

“But the memories and meanings of the sculpture will not simply disappear after its removal – rather they rely on transmission actions.”

The team had to end the event halfway through its planned six-day run because it noticed an increase in building staff at locations it had advertised online.

Of the 32 miniatures they prepared, 23 were found by students, seven were lost, one was damaged with a broken head, and its whereabouts are unknown.

Rebecca said she first heard of Tiananmen in high school, when her teacher insisted that students learn it even though it was not an exam requirement.

“I was told that when I became an adult and could be responsible for myself, I should attend the candlelight vigil, but I didn’t get the chance,” she said.

“I still hope that one day I can be a part of it.”

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Sara H. Byrd