As the 34th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown approaches Sunday, many in Hong Kong are trying to mark the day in private ways in the shadow of a law that prosecuted leading activists in the city’s pro-democracy movement.
For decades, Hong Kong was the only place in China where people held large-scale commemorations about the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in which tanks rolled into the heart of Beijing and hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people were killed.
People gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park annually to mark the June 4 anniversary with a candlelight vigil. In 2020, thousands defied a police ban to hold the event.
This Sunday, Victoria Park will be occupied instead by a carnival organized by pro-Beijing groups to celebrate Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997. Organizers say it will feature a bazaar with food from across China.
As the government arrested activists, publishers and opposition politicians under the sweeping 2020 National Security Law, public shows of opposition have mostly vanished.
As authorities erase reminders of the massacre, some Hong Kongers are fighting to keep memories alive by distributing LED candles, writing about the crackdown, or buying books about it.
In previous years, Richard Tsoi, a former vigil organizer, would have been having a busy week, preparing for the event and coordinating with police. This year, the 55-year old says he has not decided what he’ll do on Sunday.
“Over some 30 years, we carried on our work in a struggle of memory against forgetting,” said Tsoi, who wore a black T-shirt with the slogan “The people will never forget.” “Now, maybe we will have to think about how to keep this message from being drowned out in Hong Kong.”
Asked whether it is legal to mourn the crackdown in public as an individual, Hong Kong leader John Lee said that if anyone breaks the law, “of course the police will have to take action.”
The group that formerly organized the Victoria Park vigil disbanded in 2021, after police informed it that it was under investigation for working on behalf of foreign groups, an accusation the group denied, and three of its leaders were charged with subversion.
The Tiananmen crackdown left a deep mark on a generation of liberal-minded Chinese people. Tsoi, who was in college during the 1989 democracy movement, said the protests gave him hope for the future of China. When he heard sounds of gunshots on TV, he said, it was saddening and infuriating.
“After the crackdown, I wondered what we could still do in Hong Kong,” he said. “I could only vow to myself: devote my whole life to China’s democracy.”
Since the enactment of the National Security Law, Tiananmen-related statues have been removed from universities and books about the event have been pulled off public library shelves.
Newspaper columnist Johnny Lau, who covered the 1989 crackdown in person as a reporter, wrote that June 4 has become so taboo that it’s forcing people to think about it more.
Some businesses, he wrote, celebrated a newspaper’s 64th birthday by buying ads wishing it a smooth ride to its 65th, a move that avoids printing the sensitive figures 6 and 4 — as in June 4 — together.
As the books were pulled, a public servant called Yau felt she had to buy a new book called “May 35th” whose title is a roundabout way to refer to June 4.
She plans to spend Sunday reading a book or watching a documentary about the crackdown, and think deeply about the history, said the woman in her 20s, who asked to be identified only by her surname due to fear of government retribution.
She says she plans to remember both Tiananmen, and a Hong Kong in which Tiananmen could be freely commemorated.
A few small businesses are also participating. Derek Chu, owner of group purchase platform AsOne, said he plans to give away LED candles at his shop Sunday, despite a recent meeting with national security authorities. He was forbidden to give details of the meeting, he said.
Chu said no law banned commemorating the crackdown, and people have a responsibility to remember those who sacrificed for democracy and freedom. But he said it’s still a risky move.
Another small business wrote on Facebook that officers from multiple government departments came to inspect the shop after it announced it would distribute LED candles last week.
Last Saturday, Chan Kim-kam put a box of LED candles at the stall where she sells dry goods like incense and stationary. She said they were a reminder of the crackdown, and a way for people who believe in democracy, freedom and humanity “see each other.”
However, Chan said she had to remove the candles Thursday because of “a decision she was unwilling to make.” She said she could not say more.
Overseas, members of the Hong Kong diaspora are still planning events. At least some 20 commemoration events are planned in major democracies for Sunday, including the UK, where 113,500 Hong Kongers emigrated using a special visa that allows them to live and work in the country and apply for British citizenship after six years.
Lit Ming-wai, a former leader of the now-disbanded art group behind “May 35th,” which was originally a play, moved to the UK in 2021. She’s organized screenings of the play overseas, and last month published the book in Taiwan.
A Taiwanese drama group is also staging the play from Friday to Sunday.
While it appears the play can no longer be performed in Hong Kong, she said, keeping it alive elsewhere is a form of resistance against forgetfulness and China’s authoritarian rule.
“Buy a book, listen to a song, light a lamp or wear a shirt,” she said. “It’s not meaningless, because you will realize you are not that lonely when you do it.”