Tight security, censorship in China, Hong Kong on Tiananmen anniversary

A soldier guards Tiananmen Square on the eve of the Tiananmen Square protest anniversary in Beijing, on June 3, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS) - There was heightened security around Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Saturday (June 4), the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, while police in Hong Kong warned people not to gather as China strives to remove all reminders of the events of June 4.

Discussion of the crackdown is highly sensitive to China's communist leadership.

It has gone to exhaustive lengths to erase Tiananmen from collective memory, omitting it from history textbooks and censoring online discussion.

On June 4, 1989, the government sent troops and tanks to break up protests, crushing a weeks-long wave of demonstrations calling for political change and curbs on official corruption.

Hundreds, by some estimates more than 1,000, were reportedly killed in the crackdown.

On Saturday, the authorities in Beijing had set up facial recognition devices at roads leading to the square and stopped passers-by to check their identification, including a large group of cyclists who were made to individually scan their identification cards. 

The police presence in the area was noticeably heavier than normal, with two to three times the regular number of officers visible on Saturday morning.

Any reference to June 4 was blocked from Chinese social media platforms.

On Twitter, which is blocked in China, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it had been 33 years “since the world watched brave demonstrators and bystanders peacefully demand democracy in Tiananmen Square”. 

“Despite the removal of memorials and attempts to erase history, we honour their memory by promoting respect for human rights wherever threatened,” he wrote.

Several Western Consulate Generals in Hong Kong on Saturday posted 
Tiananmen tributes on social media, despite local media reports that they had been warned by the city’s Chinese foreign ministry office to refrain from doing so. The European Union’s office confirmed to AFP that they had received such a call.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong had been the one place in China where large-scale remembrance was still tolerated - until two years ago, when Beijing imposed a national security law to clamp down dissent after huge pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The drive to remove all trace of Tiananmen from the city has intensified over the past year in particular.

AFP reporters saw at least half a dozen people being taken away by police on Saturday, the majority in the evening, including activist Yu Wai-pan from the League of Social Democrats (LSD) party.

LSD said Yu was later released without charge, while fellow member Lau San-ching was arrested for wearing a shirt with a portrait of late Chinese democracy activist Li Wangyang with a mask that read “mourn June 4”.  

Police confirmed that an 80-year-old man was arrested for obstructing officers earlier in the day, but have yet to confirm the number of arrests made after nightfall.

Authorities had warned that “participating in an unauthorised assembly” on Saturday risked the maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.

Hong Kong police on Friday closed off large parts of Victoria Park, the site of a once annual candlelit vigil attended by tens of thousands.

Police stand guard after announcing the closure of a part of Victoria Park, where the candlelight vigil used to be held. PHOTO: REUTERS

The park and nearby Causeway Bay shopping district were heavily policed on Saturday, and some people were stopped and searched.

Yu and two other LSD members, all wearing white masks with a black cross across the mouth, came to Causeway Bay in the evening and stood silently on the street. Within 30 seconds, police had taken them away for a search.

They were released, but as they approached Victoria Park they were stopped and Yu was taken away.

Near the park in the evening, dozens of scattered people turned on their phone lights. Over a megaphone, police said to turn them off, warning the people they risked breaching the law on unauthorised assembly.

Others were stopped and searched for carrying flowers, wearing black and in one case, carrying a toy tank box.

Some people left candles in phone booths or on street corners, or distributed small stickers with candles drawn on them.

“We can’t make a big fuss, but there are still small ways... to tell everyone they are not alone,” one young woman told AFP.

One former leader of the now-disbanded vigil organiser, Hong Kong Alliance, was surrounded by police as he walked around with a bunch of red and white roses, and his bag searched.

The Hong Kong Alliance has been prosecuted as a "foreign agent" over incitement to subversion. Last September, its leaders were arrested and their museum shuttered after a police raid.

"Never forget June 4! Fight till the last!" shouted one of the Alliance's leaders, Ms Chow Hang-tung, as she was led into the defendant's dock for a pre-trial procedure on Tuesday.

Mr Leung Kam-wai, Ms Chow's former colleague, told AFP the authorities have been encouraging self-censorship by deliberately blurring the line between what is legal and not.

"I hope those who still want to commemorate can find their own way to do it," Mr Leung said. "It does not have to take place in the park."

The lack of clarity over where the red lines lie has made many fall in line.

Six universities have removed June 4 monuments that had stood on their campuses for years. Just before Christmas last year, three were whisked away within 48 hours.

Annual Catholic memorial masses, one of the last ways for Hong Kongers to come together publicly to remember, were cancelled this year, with organisers saying they did not want to breach the law.

Commemoration events in Macau were also cancelled, with organisers blaming the "worsening environment in Macau politics".

The space for remembering the crackdown publicly now lies outside China, with exiled dissidents setting up their own museums in the United States and activists planning to resurrect the Pillar of Shame, one of the removed university statues, in Taiwan.

Vigils will be held globally, with rights group Amnesty International coordinating candlelit ones in 20 cities "to demand justice and show solidarity for Hong Kong".

Hundreds of people gathered in Taipei on Saturday to commemorate the anniversary.

Mr Kacey Wong, an artist who fled to Taiwan from Hong Kong, told AFP at an exhibition in Taipei: "Coming to Taiwan and having the ability once again to be human - to voice our concern, to mourn the dead, it's a privilege. Totally a privilege to be able to openly, in a public space together, to mourn."




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