Hong Kong’s Victoria Park swaps Tiananmen vigil for pro-China carnival

HONG KONG — For decades, tens of thousands of people flocked to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park every June 4 to hold a candlelight vigil in somber commemoration of those killed by the Chinese military when it crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

This Sunday, after three years of bans on gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, the football fields will be filled again. But instead of commemorating the hundreds, if not thousands, who died in the crackdown, visitors will attend a fair, organized by pro-Chinese groups, to celebrate the city’s handover to Beijing.

Starting Saturday, Victoria Park will host three days of games, musical performances and carnival stalls selling goods from across China, a celebration, organizers said, of Hong Kong moving forward on a “new journey” 26 years later that Britain regained control of the city. in China (It doesn’t matter that the birthday isn’t for another month.)

The festivities began amid tight security, with police officers and members of Hong Kong’s anti-terrorist response unit patrolling the grounds. Still, the jubilant festival it was a stark contrast to the tense atmosphere last year when hundreds of police officers stood guard outside football pitches cordoned off to prevent rallies. It marked a jarring transformation in just four years: from a somber candlelight vigil to tightly controlled desolation to flag-waving carnival.

For Hong Kong’s endangered democracy movement, the site has become a symbol of the breakneck speed with which its freedoms have eroded as Beijing exerts control over the city’s future and the his past Some fear that the erosions, far from leveling off, will worsen.

“Hong Kong changed a lot, but we can’t do anything about it,” said Leung, 28, who stopped by the fair on Saturday and gave only his last name for fear of repercussions from authorities. He said he felt numb to what he saw at the carnival, knowing that Sunday is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Last week, the authorities dissolved Hong Kong’s second pro-democracy political party. And in May, most books on the Tiananmen Square crackdown were removed from public libraries. In March, the organizers of the candlelight vigil were again sentenced to prison and face additional national security charges that could result in even longer sentences.

The approach of effectively clearing space for memorials without announcing an official ban somehow makes the situation in Hong Kong even more uncertain than in mainland China, said Louisa Lim, author of a recent book on Hong Kong and professor at the University of Melbourne. .

Nine books pulled from Hong Kong library shelves

Elsewhere in China, “it’s pretty clear what the consequences will be, whereas in Hong Kong the red line is deliberately ambiguous and that gives the authorities room to maneuver,” said Lim, whose first book, ” The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” was one of those recently pulled from library shelves.

The intensive effort to silence historical inquiry into dark periods in China’s recent past brings Hong Kong in line with the rest of China, where public discussion of the leadership’s decision to send in the tanks in 1989 is almost impossible

Outside the fair on Saturday, Ho, 22, said he did not know about the carnival but had stopped to watch police searching citizens.

“I feel nervous,” said Ho, who also declined to give his full name due to security concerns. “With the fair going on and so many police present, it’s easier to do nothing here.”

Hong Kong sees first protest in three years, under tight controls

Under the handover agreement signed by Britain and China, Hong Kong’s way of life was meant to be protected by a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years from 1997. But in 2020, Beijing will impose a harsh national security law after months of youth. led protests that brought much of downtown Hong Kong to a standstill.

This law quickly made public dissent nearly impossible, making a vibrant community of activists and journalists afraid to speak out. Chow Hang-tung, one of the former organizers of the annual vigils, is in prison and could remain there for life if found guilty of pending charges of “incitement to subvert state power”.

After the loss of Hong Kong as a place of remembrance, Chinese human rights activists are increasingly looking for other ways to maintain the living memory of Tiananmen. Some in Taiwan stepped up commemoration events in solidarity with Hong Kongers who had lost the ability to speak. A small museum about repression has recently opened in New York.

But these efforts face an intense campaign by Beijing to suppress the memories of the victims of 1989, as well as the generations of human rights activists who inherited its legacy.

Under Xi Jinping, China’s powerful supreme leader, activists who were once able to carefully push for legal protections and civic engagement are now mostly in jail or in hiding, and attempts to organize among younger activists have been eliminated in their early stages.

Still, people find ways to pay tribute. In a message sent from prison, Xu Zhiyong, a Chinese jurist and founder of the “new citizens” movement who is serving a 14-year sentence for “subversion”, called for a day of commemorative fasting, as has been his practice staff during the last decade.

By emulating the Tiananmen Square approach of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in Chinese police custody in 2017, Xu is engaging in an “act of resistance that connects the past with the future” of the raided movement, said Teng. Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and close friend of Xu who shared the letter on Twitter.

Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy figures will go on trial on Monday

Hong Kongers wishing to commemorate the anniversary now face similar challenges to those in mainland China.

Two former district councilors who planned it to distribute candles on June 4 to facilitate private commemoration told The Washington Post that they received calls from the police, who asked if they were hosting “events” on June 4.

Debby Chan, one of the former councillors, said she will still hand out candles at her shop, even after several officials from different government departments showed up unannounced last week for what they said were “standard inspections”. She interpreted this as a sign that she is under close surveillance.

Despite the pressure, Chan still believes people should have the right to commemorate in private now that public gatherings and marches are effectively banned. “If just handing out candles is perceived as a threat, it seems to me that this regime is fragile,” he said.

Hong Kong will not forget easily, because many in the city feel that keeping Tiananmen’s memory alive is a “moral duty,” Lim said.

Still, he found it “impressive” to see the decades-old process of erasure that took place elsewhere in China in real time in a modern, internationally mobile and, until recently, uncensored society.

“We should look at the fate of Hong Kong as a warning,” Lim said. “If it can happen in Hong Kong…”

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