Hong Kongers Hold Tiananmen Vigil, Defying Police Ban

On Thursday, around 10,000 Hong Kongers defied a police letter of objection blocking the traditional public vigil for the June 4 crackdown. Others held public or private commemorations elsewhere. The effective ban came ahead of planned national security legislation seen as a lethal threat to the territory’s treasured autonomy from mainland China, which many fear would criminalize future commemorations. Thursday also brought the passage of another law against irreverence for the Chinese national anthem. From Natasha Khan at The Wall Street Journal:

Thousands flooded into Victoria Park, the usual venue for the annual vigil, which this year was forbidden for the first time by police, who cited public-health concerns because of the coronavirus. The crowd roared support as speakers on microphones criticized China’s recent decision to impose national-security laws on the city, while a minute of silence observed for the victims was broken with loud chants of “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time.”

[…] Around 9 p.m. local time, undercover police officers seized a bunch of protesters gathered on a road in the city’s Mong Kok district, beating back others with pepper spray and batons. One man was pinned to the ground in a stranglehold by a plain-clothed officer.

The swoop marked a sudden violent turn to a hitherto peaceful evening, with police in most areas allowing gatherings despite earlier warning that those who gathered would be arrested. The police force said in a tweet that if protestors hadn’t blocked roads, the police wouldn’t have intervened.

[…] Other activities took place across the city late Thursday in public spaces, churches and universities. [Source]

Other alternative venues included the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing, which in recent months has offered sanctuary from the pandemic to groups ranging from Hong Kong protesters to Muslims breaking fast during Ramadan.

South China Morning Post’s Jeffie Lam, Lilian Cheng, Gigi Choy, and Sum Lok-kei described a renewed sense of the anniversary’s importance among young attendees who had rejected it as irrelevant to their distinct Hong Kong identity.

[One 22-year-old participant in Thursday’s vigil] said protesters across the political spectrum were putting aside their differences in the face of the new national security law.

“The freedom and democracy people fought for on June 4 [1989] is not so different from what we fight for now,” he said. “If we don’t commemorate June 4, maybe people will forget what my generation has done in a few decades’ time.”

Tobey Yau, 21, who works in social services, said she could sympathise with the alliance’s “end one-party rule” slogan after last year’s anti-government protests.

“What we’re facing now in Hong Kong is very similar to what the generation of 1989 was experiencing back then. The government won’t listen to your opinion and just does whatever it wants,” she said.

[…] “Looking back at history, I worry we will also face the same situation,” she said. “We are two generations walking the same path, but they failed. And now it seems like we will meet the same outcome.” [Source]

The Washington Post’s Shibani Mahtani described the shifts in the vigil’s attendance and its place in Hong Kong politics:

Last year’s crowd was especially large, as people both commemorated the 30th anniversary of the massacre and asserted their freedoms amid looming threats from China.

A few days later, hundreds of thousands gathered on Hong Kong’s streets to protest an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China, launching eight months of massive demonstrations and sometimes violent unrest.

“Every time there’s a crisis in Hong Kong and more suppression, people will turn out,” said Lee, who also co-founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.

This year, the gathering at Victoria Park was also marked by new slogans, notably: “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.” Independence before last year was a fringe idea; such slogans were heard on Hong Kong’s streets only after the announcement of the impending national security law. [Source]

The accusation of separatism has been central to official efforts to vilify Hong Kong protesters, particularly in the eyes of the mainland public. The New York Times’ Andrew Higgins wrote last year, in a profile of real independence advocate Edward Leung, that "support for declaring Hong Kong an independent country has remained a tiny, fringe cause. It exists largely as a trope in Communist propaganda, which has used it to tar protesters as traitors and curb any sympathies people in mainland China might have for the protests." Other prominent activists disavowed the cause: 2014 protest leader Nathan Law tweeted last year, for example, that "democracy and autonomy are what we are striving for. Stop labelling the protest as ‘independent movement.’" Independence was not among the "Five Demands" that emerged from last year’s movement, which focused instead on the extradition bill that sparked the protests—now revoked but likely superseded by the looming national security law—the authorities’ response to earlier protests, and universal suffrage. The reported spread of pro-independence sentiment now appears to be a response to a feeling of being "backed into a corner with no way out."

Defacement of national symbols has been another point of emphasis in the campaign to discredit Hong Kong’s protests: last year these included a national emblem splashed with ink at the mainland’s Liaison Office, and a national flag thrown into Victoria Harbor. There have also been public displays of contempt for the Chinese anthem at soccer matches and other public events. NPR’s Emily Feng and Bill Chappell reported that a long-anticipated law against such disrespect finally passed on Thursday, mirroring similar legislation introduced on the mainland in 2017:

Hong Kong’s legislature has passed a bill making it a crime to poke fun at China’s national anthem — a move that puts new limits on anniversary events marking the Tiananmen Square massacre. Under the ban, it is illegal to alter the lyrics of the anthem, or to sing it "in a distorted or disrespectful way."

The Beijing-backed anthem bill was initially introduced in January 2019, but it wasn’t approved until Thursday — the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Making parodies of the Chinese national anthem has been a popular mode of protest; it’s now punishable by up to three years in prison and hefty fines.

[…] During debate over the national anthem bill in a legislative session last May, a council member expressed their view "that Hong Kong people should not be forced to respect the national anthem and the country through law and punishment," according to minutes summarizing the meeting.

But in Thursday’s vote, the council rejected more than 20 attempts to amend the bill and voted to adopt the ban, further reshaping Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China. [Source]

At Harris Bricken’s China Law Blog, Fred Rocafort discussed Chinese authorities’ preoccupation with calls for independence, noting that elsewhere, “despite calling for Scottish independence, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can sit down with the British prime minister without being told she will stink for 10,000 years”:

One of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) most persistent bugbears are separatist threats—real or imagined—on the fringes of its empire. The most recent manifestation of this concern has been the CCP’s response to the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. On May 20, 2020, the National People’s Congress adopted a decision regarding “national security” in Hong Kong. According to the decision’s preamble, “illegal activities such as ‘Hong Kong independence,’ splitting the country, and violent terrorist activities have seriously endangered the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the country.” Such is the extent of the CCP’s agitation that it must combat independence even on the linguistic front, putting the characters in quotes to stress the unthinkable nature of the concept.

Elsewhere, the CCP has justified its reeducation camps in Xinjiang by “claiming they are for ‘education transformation’ and ‘vocational training’ in the fight against the ‘three evils’ of ‘separatism, terrorism and extremism.’” There are also “separatist elements” at work in Tibet. Even the CCP’s militaristic designs on Taiwan are framed in delusional “anti-secession” terms.

The existence of secessionist movements within China is not in question. Xinjiang and Tibet have had independence movements for a long time. And though Hong Kong independence was until recently a fringe idea, by December 2019 it was supported by 19% of Hongkongers—and it is reasonable to assume that support has only grown in the following months. Critics of CCP policies in places like Hong Kong point out that they should be free to have this stance. This would be consistent with international law. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which China is a signatory [but which it has not ratified], declares,

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. [Source]

Taiwan is independent. Like other countries including the U.S. and U.K., it is currently considering how it might offer shelter to Hong Kongers who feel they can no longer stay in the city. At New Bloom Magazine on Thursday, Brian Hioe examined how growing solidarity between the two societies shaped this year’s commemorations in Taiwan:

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is commemorated annually in Liberty Plaza in Taipei. Liberty Plaza is where the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial is located, but has also historically been a frequent site of protest for Taiwanese social movements. This includes the 1990 Wild Lily Movement, a weeklong student occupation that was a pivotal moment in Taiwan’s democratization, as well as other events, such as the 4-5-6 Movement (四五六運動), a weekly anti-nuclear demonstration that took place in the year before the outbreak of the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

Given the ongoing protests that have taken place in Hong Kong for the past year, which have begun to resume with the COVID-19 situation under control in Hong Kong, much of the commemorations this year were focused on Hong Kong. The Tiananmen Square vigil in Taipei this year takes place during the first year ever in Hong Kong in which the annual Tiananmen Square commemoration was banned by the government. […]

Many of the speakers at the event were Hongkongers residing in Taiwan, including Lam Wing-kee, the only one of the Causeway Bay booksellers to remain free, and who recently reopened Causeway Bay Books in Taipei. Likewise, half a dozen individuals wore gas masks, black clothing, and other hallmarks of Hong Kong demonstrators, and waved Hong Kong independence flags. Individuals wearing “full gear” are an increasingly common sight at protests in Taiwan.

A frequent chant from the crowd was “Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” (光復香港,時代革命). During the commemoration, Hong Kong protest songs such “Glory to Hong Kong” (願榮光歸香港), which became a “national anthem” for the Hong Kong protests in the past year, and “Flower of Freedom” (自由花), which is sung at the Victoria Park commemoration every year, were among those sung. […] [Source]

At The Abusable Past, Catherine Chou and Gina Anne Tam discussed Hong Kong and Taiwan’s historical relations with China, the limitations of viewing them solely through that lens, and the “fragile and improbable cross-border solidarity” emerging between them.

[…] Immediately interpreted as an attempted clampdown on Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms of speech and assembly, the news [of the new national security law’s imposition] was met with immediate outcry by city residents that such an act would violate the principle of “one country, two systems,” developed in the 1980s to facilitate the “return” of Hong Kong and Macau to the PRC from the UK and Portugal, their respective colonial rulers. The cornerstone of “one country, two systems”, as the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 outlined, was a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong for the first fifty years after the 1997 handover. Yet only 23 years later, Beijing is making clear with its “national security” law that it believes it can unilaterally interpret, warp, and circumscribe the nature of that autonomy. To Beijing it seems, “one country” will always supersede “two systems.”

[…] The purpose of “one country, two systems”, after all, is to promote a vision of China as a nation-state, a cultural concept, and a global force that contains Hong Kong and Taiwan firmly within its orbit at all times. Beijing has so successfully set the terms of the discussion about these two places that both their histories and futures are imagined as inextricably bound to China’s. Indeed, even anti-CCP activists in both spaces have often allowed Beijing to dominate the narrative. Protest slogans like “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan” presume that the fate of one might predict the other and that both are dependent upon the whims of Beijing.

What if we were to question this entire premise? Rather than streamlining Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the PRC into a “Greater China” with “one country, several systems” as its natural zenith, we argue that they are better understood as possessing divergent, independent histories that have only recently and unexpectedly been brought together by the force of Beijing’s ambitions. Indeed, the idea that Taiwan and Hong Kong were both “lost” to China and need to be recovered is rooted in an anachronistic reading of late imperial Chinese history that downplays the extent to which both territories have been subject to colonial violence. […] [Source]


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