June 4 in Hong Kong: A suppressed city fights for its memory of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown

Domestic News

For the third year in a row, memorials for those who died on and near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 were absent in Hong Kong. But local artists and students found their own ways to commemorate the event despite threats from the authorities.

Police officers make sure Victoria Park stays empty on June 4, 2022. Photo by Trever Tong.

Last Saturday in Hong Kong marked the third year in a row that authorities banned a vigil traditionally held in Victoria Park to commemorate the victims of China’s 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Six soccer pitches in the Park, where a sea of candlelight could be seen on June 4 every year from 1990 to 2019, were sealed off by the government, which warned the public that taking part in an “unauthorized assembly” risked a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.

Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the PRC, was once the only place within Chinese territory where commemoration of June 4 massacre (liùsì 六四 in Chinese), or “June 4 incident” as Beijing prefers to call it, could be held. The annual gathering was also considered as a touchstone for “One Country, Two Systems”, which promised Hong Kong unique freedom from the mainland since its handover from the U.K. in 1997. 

However, the city has witnessed a rapid erosion of its civil liberties since the implementation of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, Beijing’s response to the massive pro-democracy and anti-China protests in 2019. Although the central government reiterated that the NSL only targeted “small groups of people”, the dissolution of media institutions and civil organizations in the past two years tells a different story. 

The former organizer of the annual June 4 vigil, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (the Alliance 支聯會), announced its disbandment last September under NSL pressure after being accused of being a “foreign or Taiwan agent”. No individual or organization officially resumed the vigil this year. The Hong Kong Catholic diocese also called off its memorial mass for Tiananmen victims as the front-line colleges worried about violating the NSL.  

In 2020 and 2021, the police rejected the Alliance’s applications for a June 4 assembly in Victoria Park, citing COVID-19 restrictions. Although banned in 2020, thousands of people still showed up as the Alliance leaders convened in the Park that year. However, six members of the Alliance, along with other activists, were later sent to jail for participating in an illegal gathering. In 2021, the police first closed some of the Park to prevent people from gathering in the afternoon, while crowds scattered nearby, turning on their phone flashlights instead of lighting candles. 

This year, which marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China’s sovereignty, the government ramped up its efforts to silence any forms of commemoration. Prior to Saturday, steel fences were erected in sections of Victoria Park, which was closed from 11 p.m. on June 3 to 12.30 a.m. on June 5. One police superintendent stated last week that residents might be sued for illegal assembly even if they came alone, saying that “a group of people appearing in the same place at the same time with a common purpose is meeting the definition of a public meeting.”

An empty Victoria Park on the night of June 3, 2022. Photo by Trevor Tong. Click here to see photos of a very crowded Victoria Park on June 4 in previous years.

On June 4, police officers in full gear were distributed at virtually every corner near Victoria Park, from subway station to park entrances. People wearing black, carrying flowers or just standing close to cordoned-off areas were stopped by police officers to have their IDs and bags checked. Even the most low-profile mourning would be interrupted. 

According to Inmediahk, a local news website, a British man referred to as Michael stepped near the steel fences and was suddenly surrounded by at least 9 police officers. “It’s my first time experiencing ‘random search’ during my 26 years’ stay in Hong Kong”, he told the website, “they just want to scare people from coming to Victoria Park.” A woman distributing blank paper was also stopped, checked, and searched by the police. “They asked me not to distribute the paper but refused to tell me why,” she said.

Victoria Park on June 4. Photo by Trevor Tong.

Some people were even banned from entering Causeway Bay, the area where the Park is located. Chiu Yan Loy (趙恩來 Zhào Ēnlái), a former member of the Alliance, who was jailed for eight months for his role in the 2020 gathering and was released this February, and others were escorted back to a subway station after they arrived in Causeway Bay on Saturday. “The police said the flowers I brought are seditious”, Chiu later told Hong Kong Free Press

The police announced that five men and one woman were arrested on June 4, with alleged offenses including “inciting others to take part in an unauthorized assembly”, “obstructing police” and “possession of offensive weapons.”

Angelina, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) who declined to reveal more personal information for security concerns, also brought white flowers to Victoria Park, planning to mourn by standing silently. She approached the Park at around 7 p.m. and took out the flowers. However, “within one minute the police shouted us off, warning that if we stayed longer, it would lead to unauthorized assembly,” she told SupChina.

“June 4, in addition to what happened in Tiananmen Square, bears a localized memory belonging to Hong Kong. We Hongkongers have memorized June 4 for so many years because we believed that a society without democracy would not flourish,” Angelina said firmly. “We must inherit the memory, no matter how big the risks are.”

Police officers in Causeway Bay on June 3. Photo by Trevor Tong.

In the days leading up to this year’s anniversary, Angelina, together with other three other students, created an Instagram account called @finding_manneoi  — “manneoi” is the Romanisation of the Cantonese for mín nǚ 民女, which is short for “Goddess of Democracy” (民主女神 mínzhǔ nǚshén), a 33-foot-tall monument to liberty created by protestors in Beijing in 1989, and a key cultural reference for Hong Kongers who have memorialized June 4 since then. Since 2010, CUHK has hosted a faux bronze replica of the Beijing Goddess, but it was removed in December 2021

The “manneoi” Instagram account encouraged people to look for 32 3D-printed miniatures of the Goddess hidden on the CUHK campus from May 31 to June 5. However, as media exposure increased and college security showed up, the activity ended on June 3 due to security concerns. 

A miniature of the Goddess of Democracy statue. Photo by Trevor Tong.

But the small protest might yet live on in physical form: The team published the 3D printer file for the miniature Goddess of Democracy. “I am very touched that so many students, faculty members, and alumni participated in the activity. I hope we can all remember what the Goddess means for us,” Angelina said.  She estimated that at least 100 people participated. One was Xiǎo Yáng 小楊, a 19-year-old mainland freshman student who requested to use an alias out of privacy concerns. Having started at CUHK last September, three months before the removal of the original life-size Goddess, he managed to find one of the mini Goddesses and took it home

“Although I have some ‘rebellious spirits’ against the authorities, I only knew the full picture of the June 4 incident after coming to Hong Kong,” Yang told SupChina. “It was unbelievable for me to hear the students of my age with the same language shouting out uncensored slogans.”

The same day “finding manneoi” ended, four performance artists were seen in Causeway Bay, memorializing June 4. One was arrested. Such performances in the evening of June 3 have been a long-held tradition that usually involved more than 10 artists in previous years. 

Joyce being filmed by police officers. Photo by Trevor Tong.

One of the artists this year was a 32-year-old woman who introduced herself as Joyce. She invited passersby to solve a “math problem” and the answer was “8964.” Rewards for participation were handmade clay flowers. “Give this flower to the ones who still persist against all the difficulties faced”, Joyce told participants. 

Joyce’s performance began around 7:30 p.m. but within 40 minutes, two policemen asked her to leave. They took down her ID details and also filmed her. Joyce said she did not expect such a forceful reaction from the police as her performance was toned down compared to the previous three years. 

Yǒngjiā 詠嘉, a 21-year-old student majoring in social science who put up small memorial posters on CUHK campus this year, said she wanted to commemorate June 4 every year. This year, her posters included a photo of a man bicycling to Tiananmen Square in 1989 who has become almost a meme on Twitter in a video in which he says “This is my duty.” She also made a poster with a quote from Nobel Peace Prize winning dissident Liú Xiǎobō 劉曉波, reading “I hope I am the last victim of literary inquisition in China. No one would suffer in prison because of their words.”

One of Yongjia’s posters. Photo by Trevor Tong.

The artist Joyce said she hoped that she will still have the courage to conduct a performance next year, amid Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on voices of dissent in Hong Kong. 

But Taiwan may become the last Chinese speaking territory to continue to celebrate June 4. Even there, memories are fading. This year in Taipei, people gathered to honor the dead and discuss the crackdown happening in Hong Kong. But only a “small portion” of the Taiwanese public “actually pays close attention to events related to the massacre,” according to DW News reporter William Yang. “For now, the aspiration that the public in Taiwan can help maintain the tradition of commemorating June Fourth at the same scale as Hong Kong has done for decades remains a very ambitious one,” he wrote.