Nationalist Carnival and Detentions Meet Hong Kong June 4th Commemorations

Sunday marked the 34th anniversary of the 1989 June 4th crackdown. In Hong Kong, in a stark sign of the city’s political trajectory over the past several years, authorities stifled the formerly traditional public and private commemorations. The National Security Law (NSL) has empowered the pro-Beijing government to criminalize any speech deemed threatening to national security, severely restricting the space for commemorations that challenge the CCP’s official interpretation of the events surrounding the crackdown. In place of the candlelit vigil in Victoria Park that took place every year up until the NSL, a three-day nationalist carnival occupied the park while police detained at least 32 demonstrators elsewhere. Tiffany May from The New York Times reported on some of those detained by police

Among those arrested were Lau Ka-yee, of Tiananmen Mothers, and Kwan Chun-pong, a former vigil volunteer; they were carrying pieces of paper saying they were on a hunger strike as individual mourners. Sanmu Chan, a performance artist, yelled, “Hong Kongers, don’t be afraid! Don’t forget June 4,” as a crush of officers took him away. The police also detained a man and a woman who had carried chrysanthemums and worn white clothing, symbols of mourning.

23 more people were taken away by the police on Sunday, including Chan Po-ying, a labor activist; Mak Yin-ting, the former head of a journalist’s association; and Alexandra Wong, better known as Grandma Wong, a familiar figure at many protests, often waving a British flag. 

[…] Debby Chan, a former pro-democracy district official, had posted a few photos on social media of electric candles she displayed in her grocery store last Tuesday. The police and representatives of three different government departments visited her several times because of that, she said. But she was undeterred. [Source]

Many were detained for “breaching public peace” and one woman was arrested for “obstructing police officers.” Some were detained while holding unlit candles or wearing yellow clothing, a color associated with the city’s pro-democracy movement. On Sunday, the U.N. Human Rights office tweeted that it was “alarmed” by these reported detentions. In response, the Hong Kong government opposed and condemned the U.N.’s “fact-twisting and unfounded remarks” that “smear the lawful enforcement actions of the police under the guise of the freedoms of speech, of the press and of assembly.”

Security was tighter in Hong Kong this year, as up to 6,000 police personnel were deployed, including riot and anti-terrorism officers, alongside a million-dollar armored vehicle from mainland China. Police impounded a civilian car with the license plate “US8964”; the owner said he never had issues with the license plate in previous inspections or years. Former Hong Kong Alliance member Chiu Yan-loy told AFP the police had repeatedly asked him about his June 4 plans, and “told me multiple times not to leave home on that day,” he said.

The U.S. and E.U. consulates in Hong Kong displayed commemorative candles in their windows, and the U.K. embassy in China shared a social media post about how Chinese state media had reported on the protests and crackdown at the time. Weibo took down the post within 20 minutes. 279 out of 282 comments under a Weibo post by the Dutch embassy in China, about the “fragility and resilience of democracy,” were censored. Separately, Douyin reportedly issued censorship instructions for June 3rd to 5th that banned a wide range of content that might be or be interpreted as related to the anniversary. 

In Victoria Park on Saturday, a group of pro-Beijing groups organized a three-day carnival to celebrate the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, which takes place one month from now. The site was traditionally where thousands of people gathered for a candlelight vigil to commemorate those killed in the crackdown. The last vigil took place in 2019, before the NSL’s passage, and official pandemic restrictions were used to block the vigil in the years since. Alyssa Chen at the Japan Times described how this year the pro-Beijing carnival took over the park:

This year, with pandemic restrictions finally lifted, there were hopes — albeit slim ones — of reinvigorating peaceful commemorations locally. These were dashed, however, with the announcement that the venue traditionally used for the commemorations would host a “Hometown Market Carnival” from Saturday to Monday.

Jointly launched by 26 Chinese provincial patriotic associations in Hong Kong to celebrate the upcoming 26th anniversary of the establishment of the city as a special administrative region, over 200 booths were set up for the event to showcase mainland cities’ home-grown products, cuisines, handicrafts and clothing. Several traditional Chinese events, including a lion dance, puppet show and tai chi performance, were held.

Underlining the difference from past years, notices near the event’s entrance were clear: no banners, leaflets, posters or other materials with political messages were allowed. [Source]

Since the passage of the NSL, Hong Kong’s government has attempted to stamp out anything and anyone commemorating the massacre. “The right of demonstrations, the right of freedom of expression of different views from the government which were guaranteed by the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s mini constitution]  …  I think it’s totally gone,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Jamestown Foundation think-tank in Washington.

However, many Hongkongers still found small ways to keep the memory alive. Some store owners distributed electronic candles and read scripts of the Tiananmen-related play “May 35,” despite multiple visits by government authorities. Other citizens took to gambling, making 8-9-6-4 the most popular bet combination in eight out of ten of Sunday’s horse races. The Hong Kong Free Press reported on other clever ways Hongkongers commemorated and evaded censorship

“It’s subtle, but it’s like performance art. The police kept looking at me but they have not stopped and checked me yet,” Si, who appeared to be in her 60s, said. The keychains on her bag read “Don’t get used to it” and “Nobody talked about such a big incident” in Chinese characters.

“It’s a sad day. It makes me angry to see Victoria Park sing and dance peacefully. Today’s Hong Kong is absurd but people don’t dare say anything, “ Si said, adding that she did not have any plans to leave. “We just try to live as long as we can and witness everything.”

[…A 70-year-old woman named] Chan, wearing a black top and yellow mask, was stopped and searched by police in the middle of an interview with HKFP. The officers let her go after inspecting her bag.

[…] Another woman, who gave her name as Tsang, sat on a bench in Victoria Park reading May 35, a play by Candace Chong about the parents of those who died during the crackdown. The title refers to the date of the crackdown, and has been used to evade censors in mainland China.

She told HKFP that she was reading the book as an act of commemoration. “They don’t let us light candles, ” she said, adding that she wanted to think about the Tiananmen crackdown to see if there was anything Hong Kong could take as a reference from this incident. [Source]

In the end, activists praised these small gestures and expressed confidence in the city’s democratic resilience. “Buy a book, listen to a song, light a lamp or wear a shirt,” said Lit Ming-wai, a former leader of the now-disbanded art group behind the play “May 35th,” adding, “It’s not meaningless, because you will realize you are not that lonely when you do it.” Amnesty stated that “the fact that Hongkongers continue to mark the Tiananmen crackdown, despite the ever-growing risks, lays bare the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience.” Yaqiu Wang from Human Rights Watch argued that despite censorship, people across China and the globe continue to risk their safety and freedom by speaking out and demanding their rights,” and therefore “[n]o matter how hard President Xi Jinping’s government tries, it won’t succeed in erasing the memory of Tiananmen from the minds of China’s people.” 


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