HONG KONG – Richard Tsoi remembers feeling overwhelmed when he saw Victoria Park turn into a “sea of lights” on June 4, 1990 as hundreds of thousands raised candles in tribute to victims of military repression on Tiananmen Square in Beijing a year earlier.
“It changed me,” said the pro-democracy activist – then just a student in what was still a British colony. He has never missed a birthday since.
But as China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, it has also restricted its efforts to mark the occasion – just as it has long done on the mainland.
Authorities banned the vigil for a second year in a row, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Police arrested one of its organizers on Friday and closed large swathes of the park in what they said was an effort to prevent unauthorized gatherings.
A dedicated Tiananmen museum also suddenly closed on Wednesday, just two days before this year’s anniversary, after authorities investigated it for not having the necessary licenses.
Critics say Beijing seeks not only to silence the tributes to the deadly 1989 event, but also to crack down on pro-democracy activism more broadly, as it brings its most turbulent territory into its orbit in more ways. decisive.
“It is a great disappointment that people cannot come together this year,” said Tsoi, now secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance, the group that is organizing the vigil. “We cannot agree with their decision that this is due to Covid-19. We see that there is a political motive for the event to have been banned. “
The global financial center has kept Covid-19 infection rates relatively low, with no locally transmitted cases for more than a week. Art fairs and football matches, which drew thousands of people, have been allowed to continue – although uptake of the vaccine has been very slow.
NBC News has contacted Hong Kong Police for comment.
Tiananmen is heavily censored on the mainland, where Beijing has long sought to whitewash the events of that day. An official death toll has never been released, but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.
Responding to a question about the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Thursday reiterated China’s position that its response to the “political unrest” of 1989 had been correct.
Until now, Hong Kong was one of only two cities on Chinese soil, along with Macau, allowed to commemorate the anniversary of the event. June 4 has become a calendar day for many and the vigil a powerful symbol of democratic hope.
But Tsoi won’t light a candle in Victoria Park on Friday.
Despite an official ban on the vigil last year as well, thousands of people gathered for a dark but provocative memorial. A total of 26 pro-democracy figures, including Tsoi, were accused of participating and inciting others to participate in the unauthorized assembly. Four, including Joshua Wong, were sentenced to prison terms after pleading guilty in early May. Others await their judgment.
This year, Tsoi said he had no choice but to urge people to remember June 4 “in other ways.”
“The safety of our people is the most important,” he said.
After a sweeping national security law was passed last year, pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong fear their rights and freedoms are slowly being suppressed. Beijing has forced electoral changes and arrested hundreds of activists as it clamps down on the opposition, leading many to flee the city and continue their activism abroad.
Activists argue that the ban on the June 4 vigil is another example of “political repression” as seen on the continent.
“The Victoria Park vigil is the symbol of Hong Kong’s freedom. But the Communist Party can no longer tolerate the Hong Kong people using the June 4 massacre to condemn their regime, ”self-exiled activist Sunny Cheung told NBC News.
“It’s really painful to leave Hong Kong at this critical time because Hong Kong is in danger,” Cheung said. “We hope the Hong Kong people can use other means when the authoritarian regime suppresses the city.”
City leader Carrie Lam did not comment on the commemorations, saying only that citizens must obey the law, as well as the Communist Party, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Louisa Lim, author of ‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia Tiananmen Revisited’, told NBC News how this year’s event was canceled was “extremely important.”
“Explicit warnings about penalties for people wearing black clothes and lighting candles are unthinkable,” Lim said. “The deployment of so many officers shows that the event is monitored in the same way as the massacre was, and [chanting slogans] with subversion shows that their motives are political.
The US State Department on Friday released a statement of support for those defending the victims and seeking the truth of the events.
“The courage of the brave individuals who stood side by side on June 4 reminds us that we must never stop seeking transparency into the events of that day, including a full account of all those killed, detained or carried missing, “the statement said. said, adding that such demands resonate with the struggle for political rights in Hong Kong.
Many people have come up with alternative methods to mark the anniversary.
Jailed activist Jimmy Sham said via his Facebook page that he planned to “light a cigarette at 8 p.m.”
Artist Pak Sheung-chuen on Monday called on people to write the numbers six and four – representing June 4 – on light switches to remember the event every time they turn them on.
“Keep the truth and refuse to forget,” he said in a Facebook post.
An independent bookstore held a lottery on June 4, where customers can choose from certain numbers for discounts. Some churches will hold masses to remember the incident.
On Friday, Tsoi will light a candle in his own home for the first time in over 30 years.
“We must never forget. We must preserve our history, ”he said.
Despite the intensification of the crackdown in Beijing, he says he remains hopeful for the city’s future.
“I have confidence in Hong Kong,” he said.