As It Happens

Hong Kong activists vow to hold vigil for Tiananmen Square anniversary despite ban

Amid a crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Hong Kong authorities have banned a vigil to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre for the first time in 30 years, saying it's too risky given COVID-19. Pro-democracy advocates don't buy that argument.

Organizers say ban is part of a continued crackdown on pro-democracy movement, not because of COVID-19

Thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the Chinese government's brutal military crackdown three decades ago on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. This year authorities have banned the vigil, citing coronavirus, but organizers say they believe the move is part of a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

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For thirty years, authorities in Hong Kong have reluctantly allowed mass vigils to take place to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

This year, they say: it's not going to happen.

The official reason is the COVID-19 pandemic. But activists say it's more about the continued crackdown on the pro-democracy movement.

Lee Cheuk Yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, is one of the vigil's organizers. He spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off from Hong Kong.

What will you do on June 4 now that you're not allowed to have this vigil in Victoria Park?

It's really sad [because] we have been holding this candlelight vigil for over 30 years and this is the 31st anniversary. But what we will do, though, is our organization will still go enter into Victoria Park to light up the candle at 8 p.m., and we have online candlelight vigil rally all over Hong Kong.

We are calling upon the people of Hong Kong, wherever you are, you can come to Victoria Park, or you can stay at your own home or outside on the streets, wherever you are in Hong Kong, you light a candle. So instead of what we have done 30 years with a very big turnout — like last year, 180,000 people in Victoria Park — we will have all the people around Hong Kong everywhere light up candles. 

If you are and the others in your alliance are still going to go to Victoria Park, will you be violating the ban that the authorities have put on this vigil? 

We believe that the ban is totally unreasonable. Because the excuse for the ban is that, with the prevention-of-disease regulations, you should not have a gathering of more than eight people. But it's very absurd. If you have two group of eight people, and we don't know each other, as long as we have 1.5 metres of social distancing [required in Hong Kong], then there's no problem.

What we're saying, OK, we're going to Victoria Park. Other people may stay out. If you're coming to Victoria Park, stay the 1.5 metres social distance. 

Lee Cheuk Yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China reacts after losing a seat at the legislative council elections in Hong Kong, Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. Given Hong Kong's low number of COVID cases, and that schools and swimming pools are reopened, he says the ban is not valid. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

So the authorities are saying that this is about the coronavirus, that this is why you can't have more than eight people gathering, when you had, as you've pointed out, 180,000 in the past. You think that's not that's not really the reason why? 

I don't think that's the real reason. When you look at what happened in Hong Kong now, we have only about 1,000 confirmed cases. And come on, schools are opening, swimming pools, religious gatherings. And when you look at the public transport in Hong Kong, it's far more crowded and then our candlelight vigil. But the government is not banning public transport. They are only banned in political gatherings.

And you have also to look at the context that recently the Chinese Communist Party had announced that the National People's Congress want to legislate in Hong Kong the national security law, forcing upon Hong Kong their law in China — that part about subversion, sedition and our freedom of speech. So what are we are suspecting is that the police are showing loyalty to Communist Party by banning the candlelight vigil.

Can I ask you how how important is this, having a commemoration of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, how important is it to people in Hong Kong to keep that vigil going? 

For 30 years, when the whole of China was being silenced, it's only in Hong Kong where we can to light a candle for them. And many mainland Chinese come to Hong Kong to commemorate together with us.

When China is trying to brainwash the whole China that nothing happened in '89, only in Hong Kong we can retain that memory, and condemn the massacre, and show to the world, show the Communist Party, that we have not forgotten. And this persistence is to show to China that we still continue the fight for democracy that the students back in '89 had been fighting for.

Two weeks ago you were arrested for taking part in anti-government demonstrations. You're out on bail. So if the police are unhappy with those who come to Victoria Park, how concerned are you about your own freedom? 

I think it's more important that we are persistent in our action to condemn the massacre. We will not retreat just because they have arrested me a few weeks back and therefore we will continue our struggle, the condemnation of the massacre and the demand calling for the end of one-party rule in China.

Of course we may be putting ourselves at personal risk, but I think it's not that we are at risk, it's that Hong Kong is at risk, our freedom of speech, everyone in Hong Kong is at risk. Therefore we are calling upon the world to stand with us.

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Chris Harbord. Edited for length and clarity.