Traditionally, every June 4th, thousands of Hongkongers meet at Victoria Park to commemorate the thousands of lives lost when the Chinese Communist Party led brutal and bloody repression at the protesters, which left at least 10,000 peaceful protestors dead in the streets (according to a declassified British cable). However, this year this was not to be as the Hong Kong police banned the Tiananmen Vigil for a second year straight, citing coronavirus concerns.
Although the public health excuse might have made sense last year, when practically the entire world was waging a deadly and exhausting war against COVID-19, the same argument holds little traction when the island city has experienced zero local infection cases or about six weeks. This prohibition also comes at a time when the famed “one country two systems” framework is in existential danger after the passing of strict national security laws, written by Beijing, last year.
Since the passing of those laws, the former British colony has experienced a significant increase in police actions against pro-democracy protestors and leaders. Framed activists Joshua Wong was imprisoned by the authorities last year and sentenced to one year in prison due to his involvement in some assemblies that were unauthorized under national security law, Wong then got an additional 10 months added to his sentence due to his participation on last year’s vigil.
A few days ago, Chow Hang Tun, one of the organizers of the vigil was imprisoned by HK police due to her involvement in the vigil. Tun had previously denounced the HK government for persecuting her for her role in promoting last year’s vigil and said, weeks before her arrest, that it would be “expected” if police finally came knocking on her door.
This year, due to fears that Hongkongers might openly disobey the orders by the government, thousands of police officers were deployed to guard Victoria Park and its vicinities to avoid any type of protest. However, despite the tight security apparatus hundreds of protesters managed to meet around Victoria Park and made their tribute to the thousands of victims of the 34-year-old massacre.
The U.S State Department issued a statement remembering the victims of the massacre and calling the Beijing government to “respect universal human rights”. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to it, saying the U.S should “first look in the mirror” before condemning China of Human Rights abuses against minorities.
A sign of the times
In 1989, thousands of Chinese students went to the streets to demand greater liberties from a government that was beginning to enact economically liberal policies, but that kept tight political control over its population. They were not the only ones to do so that year, as later that year hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans did the same as they filled the streets asking for liberty and democracy against the soviet satellites that ruled Eastern Europe since the end of the war.
Chinese protesters, however, were not as successful as their European counterparts. After a few days of debate within the Chinese politburo, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) proceeded to gun down thousands of their own citizens. Since then, China has effectively censored any reference of what happened that day. For example, a few years ago when a professor asked 100 students at Beijing University to identify the iconic “tank man”, only 15 were able to do so.
Hong Kong, however, was different. At that time, the city was under British colonial control, hence the Chinese communist party could not control the flow of information nor erase Tiananmen from the history books. Once the city came under Chinese sovereignty, the situation was no much different as the “one country, two systems” arrangement allowed HK citizens to exercise political freedoms than mainland China could not even dream of.
Times have changed since the 1990s, however, and despite the hopes of many politicians and advisors that free trade and economic freedoms would slowly but surely transform China into a country where liberal principles are respected, the opposite has happened. The CCP has strengthened its control over the Chinese people and it has begun to extend its reach to populations they consider to be troublesome, whether they are the Ughyrs in Xinjiang, the Taiwanese, or the autonomous citizens of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong and Taiwan represented a thorn in the shoes of Beijing, it has significant economic importance due to their status as a financial hub but it also showed how ethnically Chinese citizens could also enjoy economic prosperity without having to surrender all of their political rights. It also was a perpetual dormant threat to the monopoly on power that the CCP has and the Tiananmen vigil was a great example of that: it defied the nationwide censorship of the massacre and that was something that Beijing could not tolerate.
However, as the economic relevance of Hong Kong relative to China decreased, China felt more emboldened and despite the massive protests by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong both in 2014 and in 2019, the sheer weight of the Chinese behemoth has practically crushed the movement. The National Security Law, passed in the midst of a pandemic, has given Beijing the legal tools to neutralize the “one country, two systems” scheme.
With Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong becoming tighter by the day and its campaign against Muslim minorities within their own borders, it has become clear that the hope for a gradual liberalization of the Chinese system has regretfully failed.