Every year since 1989, tens of thousands of protesters have organized a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, an oasis of green ringed with towering apartment and office blocks in Hong Kong’s bustling commercial district Causeway Bay.

On the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre every year, the park fills with tens of thousands of demonstrators, their faces illuminated by flickering candles. At its center, surrounded by funeral wreaths, stand replicas of the Goddess of Democracy and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the column standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square where the students in 1989 made their last stand as the People’s Liberation Army tanks closed in. 

Members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China and Hong Kong’s pan-democrat politicians give speeches and lead the crowd in patriotic songs from the Tiananmen era.

The Communist Party of China has always been very conscious of the connection between history and power. To that end, the suppression of pro-democracy protesters by the People’s Liberation Armys in Beijing on June 4, 1989 — the events history has come to refer to as the Tiananmen Massacre — have been very carefully edited out of China’s official narrative.

In the face of an enforced collective amnesia in the rest of China, Hong Kong has — even after the handover of the territory to Chinese rule in 1997 — been the repository for national  memory of the event. But that may be about to change, permanently.

According to Louisa Lim, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the author of  People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, the Hong Kong vigil, “has been foundational to keeping the memory of Tiananmen alive.” 

“It is important on many levels: as a symbolic defiant gesture to the Communist Party that Hong Kong people will not forget,” she explains, “but also, for many Hong Kongers, it is their first experience of activism.”

Bonnie Leung is one of those young Hong Kongers. She attended her first June 4 vigil as a university student in 2007. 

“I hadn’t realized how much we cared until I was there myself, and lit a candle myself,” she told me in a telephone interview, recalling the sense of community at the gathering. “I had a strong feeling that people do care, and people take care of each other. When your candle went out, people would immediately help you relight it.”

Leung has attended the vigil every year since. She is now a pro-democracy campaigner and is a former vice-convener of the Civil Human Rights Front — an umbrella organization for  NGOs in Hong Kong. 

“The June 4 vigil is an inspiration,” said Leung. “I strongly believe that it shapes us as Hong Kongers, because Hong Kong is the only place that can still memorialize these things, that can have this ceremony, and pass on the torch to the next generation.”

Numbers at the annual vigil have tended to reflect Hong Kong’s collective attitude to Beijing’s rule. In the immediate post-handover years, as life appeared to continue as normal, it attracted tens of thousands of people. Growing dissatisfaction with governance in Hong Kong and Beijing’s perceived interference there appears to have fueled larger crowds. Last year, the vigil took place the week before protests broke out over a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The gathering’s organizers reported that over 180,000 people took part.

However, this year, there will be no June 4 vigil. With the coronavirus largely under control in the city, the Hong Kong government in mid-May announced the relaxation of various social distancing measures: places of worship have reopened, as have venues such as gyms, karaoke parlours and nightclubs. However, at the same time as it announced these relaxations, the government also extended the restriction of public outdoor gatherings to no more than eight people until June 4.  On June 1, Hong Kong Police formally banned this year’s vigil, declaring it a “major threat to public health”. With commemorative events also cancelled in Macau, this year will be the first time that the anniversary is not publicly marked on Chinese soil since 1989.

The question is, will 2019 prove to have been the last time?

Last week, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, resolved to impose  a new national security law on Hong Kong — over the heads of Hong Kong’s semi-democratically elected legislature. The law will outlaw secession, subversion, terrorism and interference by “foreign forces” in the city: residents fear the law will be drafted so broadly that it will be a tool for Beijing to suppress rights and freedoms and crush dissent in the city. 

C.Y. Leung is a former Chief Executive of Hong Kong — as the head of the semi-autonomous region’s government is known — and one of Beijing’s key proxies in Hong Kong. After the new security law was announced, Leung  acknowledged that the June 4 memorial event could be banned under the new law and the Alliance outlawed.

“The vigil is one of the most visible signs of how Hong Kong is different from the rest of China,” says Tonyee Chow, vice president of the Alliance. “A permanent ban on the vigil would send a very bad signal to the world, reflecting on the state of human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.” 

The memorial itself, Chow argues, is not subversive or even particularly radical. 

“It is only calling for justice for past wrongs. If we cannot even say that in public, what does that say about Hong Kong? That Hong Kong is just another city in China?” she asked.

When asked about the loss that would come with a permanent end to the vigil, Lim spoke of her visit to Zhang Xianling in Beijing in 2013. Zhang is a member of the Tiananmen Mothers, an activist group comprised of parents of victims of the 1989 massacre. When Lim first showed Zhang pictures of the Hong Kong vigil, she was speechless. 

Zhang, who had been living under the weight of state censorship, assumed that she and her small organization were fighting alone. The Hong Kong memorial gathering, she said, seemed like a fairy tale. 

“If the vigil is banned forever,” said Lim, “We will all become like the Tiananmen Mothers. Those who remember will no longer be able to remember en masse. When you atomize that, so that people can only remember secretly and silently and in small groups, I think it is a huge loss.”

Hostile “foreign forces”

Yet the move is just one of many examples of the government’s attempt to rewrite the official narrative. Beijing is relying upon its own narrative that the Hong Kong protests are the work of hostile “foreign forces” (a charge that remains unproven) to  justify what it says is an urgent need for the controversial new national security law.

Two weeks ago, current Chief Executive Carrie Lam launched a report by the territory’s Independent Police Complaints Council into law enforcement conduct during last year’s protests. She did so in front of a backdrop of images of fiery destruction and civil unrest, emblazoned with the slogan: “The Truth About Hong Kong.”

The report exonerated the police, despite widespread accusations of overreach and brutality. In September 2019, Amnesty International, published a report that stated: “Hong Kong’s security forces have engaged in a disturbing pattern of reckless and unlawful tactics against people during the protests. This has included arbitrary arrests and retaliatory violence against arrested persons in custody, some of which has amounted to torture.” 

At the same press conference Lam also foreshadowed measures that appear designed to restrict the media’s ability to report on protests. The moves include a potential licensing scheme for journalists and implementing a “code of conduct” between media and police, which may give police powers to exclude media from being present on the front lines of demonstrations. 

Another proposal is to introduce a mechanism for the police to monitor and “correct” the spread of online rumors — effectively, a license for the authorities to exercise online censorship with takedown requests of posts they deem to be “rumors.” Both measures appear designed to help the government to shape the narrative by preventing an independent media from properly functioning.

Yet the people of Hong Kong remain on the streets. Thousands of protesters gathered in the bustling commercial district of Causeway Bay the weekend after the new national security law was announced, despite a blanket police presence, extensive stop-and-search operations and, eventually, tear gas and water cannon being deployed to disperse crowds. 

Last week, riot police arrested hundreds, in order to prevent demonstrations against a debate in the city’s legislature on a proposed new law that will outlaw insults to the Chinese national anthem. Meanwhile, protesters continue to gather in the city’s shopping malls to chant slogans and sing their own anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong.” 

The aim of the protesters — as with the vigil — is to issue a powerful and highly visible challenge to Beijing’s attempts to rewrite history. It is a challenge that Beijing may, despite its best efforts, find difficult to suppress. “It is in our blood,” says Leung. “We are guardians of the truth in China.”

Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images