HONG KONG – A Hong Kong museum dedicated to telling the story of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 has closed its doors amid a licensing probe.
The June 4th Museum in Mong Kok closed its doors to visitors on Wednesday morning (June 2), hours after authorities said it did not have the required licences to open as a place of public entertainment.
This is the first time the museum has had "no choice" but to temporarily shut "due to government intervention", said the operator's secretary, Mr Richard Tsoi.
The museum is run by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen vigil on June 4.
The investigation is viewed by some as a clampdown on freedom of speech in Hong Kong, which for decades has held the largest vigil remembering the victims in China's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 32 years ago.
Describing this as "unprecedented", Mr Tsoi noted that the group has for 10 years put up exhibitions related to the crackdown in different locations without being questioned by the authorities over licences.
Officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) had on Tuesday afternoon turned up at the museum to investigate if the operator had the required licences.
FEHD said in a statement its probe was launched after it had received a complaint that the venue operated without a licence.
Under the law, no one can keep or use any place of public entertainment without a licence.
Offenders face a fine of up to HK$25,000 (S$4,300) and a jail term of up to six months, as well as a further fine of HK$2,000 for every day during which the offence continues.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the alliance said it decided to close the museum until further notice so as to seek legal advice in order to protect the safety of staff members and visitors.
"In the face of the current challenging political situation, the alliance believes Hong Kongers will continue to remember June 4."
It added that people can be "smart, creative and resilient" in commemorating the event in a "legal, safe, peaceful and rational" manner in their own way.
The operator also thanked the 550 people who visited the museum in the past three days since it reopened on Sunday after renovations.
When asked, Mr Tsoi said it is unlikely the museum will reopen by Friday – June 4 – due to the complexity of the situation.
"We face very critical interference and challenges that are both political and legal recently.
"We need to admit that we cannot commemorate June 4 in a large-scale gathering but we still maintain our operation of the Hong Kong Alliance in a normal manner and we will continue to be positive and active, to fund-raise within the legal framework in Hong Kong to continue our work," he added.
The annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park is one of key events organised by the alliance for three decades. It was attended by tens of thousands in past years, and has been banned for a second year running due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
The Hong Kong authorities had also rejected the alliance’s application for a march on May 30 to commemorate those who died in the crackdown.
Macau, which also banned memorial events for a second year, cited both the pandemic and "subversion" as reasons.
In the past, slogans calling for the end of one-party rule were common at these vigils, but such calls are now likely in breach of the national security law, which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces.
Under this law that took effect on June 30 last year, Beijing will have ultimate say over how it should be interpreted.
Officials have in recent weeks warned the public that taking part in an unauthorised assembly could mean up to five years in prison, while the risk is up to 12 months' jail for "advertising or publicising" illegal rallies.
Commemorations are particularly awkward and sensitive this year, as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary on July 1.
The alliance's chairman, Lee Cheuk Yan, is in jail for inciting, organising and participating in unauthorised assemblies in 2019.