HONG KONG — Hong Kong made mocking China’s national anthem a crime on Thursday, passing a contentious law on the anniversary of the Chinese military’s bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
The move adds to fears that the space in Hong Kong for speech critical of Beijing will continue to shrink, as China’s ruling Communist Party tightens its control over the semiautonomous city after a year of antigovernment protests. For the first time ever, the local authorities banned the annual vigil in Hong Kong to remember the victims of the Tiananmen killings in 1989. Several thousand people gathered in scattered locations around the territory Thursday evening regardless.
“We are in a new era,” Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said as he arrived in Victoria Park for the vigil. “Like any place around the world that has fallen into the hands of dictatorship, we are going to have a drastic change in our daily lives. To commemorate the June 4 massacre is one. It’s going to be difficult.”
Hong Kong, which has far greater civil liberties than mainland China, has always been the most important site for public commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre, and the only large-scale one on Chinese soil. But the semiautonomous territory has come under pressure from the Chinese government, which declared last week that it would impose new national security laws on Hong Kong. The laws, which would take aim at antigovernment protests and other forms of dissent, call into question the future of organizations and events that challenge the party’s rule.
Hong Kong’s legislature, which is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, passed a separate piece of legislation on Thursday that would criminalize disrespect for China’s national anthem and make it punishable by up to three years in prison. On Thursday, several opposition lawmakers disrupted the debate by throwing stink bombs inside the legislative chamber and yelling: “A murderous regime stinks for 10,000 years.”
“What we did today is to remind the world that we should never forgive the Chinese Communist Party for killing its own people 31 years ago,” Mr. Chu, one of the opposition lawmakers who protested the law, told reporters later.
The Tiananmen vigil, often a sea of candlelit faces against the backdrop of the city’s dense buildings, has offered the rare opportunity in Chinese territory to remember the hundreds and possibly thousands of people who were killed by troops in Beijing and other cities in the summer of 1989.
In mainland China, any discussion of the anniversary is quickly scrubbed by censors, while the authorities harass relatives of those killed and block any formal memorials.
Earlier this week, the police banned the vigil, which is usually held in Victoria Park on Hong Kong island, on the grounds that it would risk spreading the coronavirus. Public gatherings of more than eight people have been barred in the city, a ban that was extended this week.
Where we left off
In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.
Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.
How it’s different this time
Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.
What’s happening now
To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
What this legislation would do
The rules would take direct aim at the anti-government protests and other dissent in Hong Kong. They are expected to prevent and punish secession, subversion as well as foreign infiltration — all of which Beijing has blamed for fueling unrest in the city.
The legislation would also allow the mainland’s feared security agencies to set up their operations publicly in Hong Kong for the first time, instead of operating on a limited scale in secrecy.
In trying to pass this legislation, Beijing is bypassing the Hong Kong government, and the legislation is being pushed by China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress.
Updated May 27, 2020
Organizers of the vigil said they believed political motives were behind the decision to block it. The police have cited social-distancing regulations to limit pro-democracy protests in recent months.
More than 1,000 people gathered for the vigil at the park on Thursday evening despite the ban, many of them holding lit candles as they sat on the ground in groups. Some chanted protest slogans while others played songs from the 1989 democracy movement. Public announcements about social distancing rules played over loudspeakers.
Mary Li, a 23-year-old university student, said she could relate to the experiences of the pro-democracy student activists at Tiananmen Square after participating in Hong Kong’s demonstrations in the past year.
“What we are fighting for is the same: freedom and democracy. And they did so facing the risk of death,” she said. “Coming here today, we may only be risking arrest. What they experienced makes me feel very somber.”
Activists also urged those who wanted to mark the anniversary to light candles on their own, or at booths set up around the city, and post the images online. Hundreds of residents gathered in several districts, holding up lit candles or shining their mobile phone lights as they shouted protest slogans. “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” they chanted. “Hong Kong independence is the only way out!”
The ban on the vigil added to the drumbeat of concerns that Beijing’s demands for security and stability would further erode Hong Kong’s civil liberties. In recent months, the police have taken an increasingly tough approach to the protest movement that began last year over a plan, since dropped, to allow extraditions to mainland China. Now, officers move quickly to pre-empt protests by making arrests and imposing security perimeters.
Beijing is drafting the new national security laws, which it says will target subversion, secession and terrorism in Hong Kong. But there are widespread fears that they will be used to suppress mere dissent and criticism of the Communist Party.
The national anthem law raises similar concerns.
Hong Kong officially adopted the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, in 1997, after the British colony was returned to Chinese control. But some of the city’s residents never accepted it as their own, often booing loudly when the song was played at sporting events.
The new law would target such behavior, calling for a fine of up to about $6,500 and three years in prison for anyone found to be misusing or insulting the anthem.
It was a defeat for the city’s pro-democracy lawmakers, who had sought to delay the bill’s passage in recent weeks. Brawls erupted between lawmakers and some were ejected from the chambers.
That the law was passed on the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown only underscored the concerns that have fueled the antigovernment protests over the past year.
Each June 4, the hard-surfaced soccer fields of Victoria Park have served not only as a place to memorialize the dead, but as a history classroom for the young and a canvasing site for local pro-democracy groups. It has also acted as a gauge of whether Hong Kong can maintain the political freedoms that have become part of its identity, guaranteed under a policy known as “one country, two systems,” which was put in place when the city was returned to China.
“It’s a sort of symbol of whether, under Communist Party rule, ‘one country, two systems’ can work, of whether we can have this condemnation of the massacre continuously carried forward after ’97,” Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer of the annual vigil, said.
At the vigils, local religious leaders and pro-democracy political figures usually speak, along with veterans of the Tiananmen protests and parents of demonstrators who were killed.
Han Dongfang, a Tiananmen protest leader who spent almost two years in prison after the crackdown, has regularly attended the vigils since he was expelled from mainland China in 1993. He went to Victoria Park on Thursday.
“I don’t mind if other people don’t go, if it is not an official event or demonstration or protest,” said Mr. Han, who runs a workers’ rights organization, the China Labor Bulletin. “To me it’s a symbolic place and a symbolic day to commemorate this for my children. I want them to know.”
As President Trump has pushed for the use of armed forces in the United States to quell the unrest that has followed the killing of a black man by the police in Minnesota, Mr. Han said governments should resist that option.
“The military should never be used to answer protests, not under a dictatorship or in a democracy,” he said.
Attendance at past vigils has risen and fallen from year to year, often in line with broader public sentiment toward China’s central government. Younger activists, who have increasingly rejected ties to mainland China and asserted a separate and distinct identity, have organized alternative commemorations, saying the vigil’s calls for a democratic China were disconnected from Hong Kong’s own political struggles.
Skyler Wong, a 24-year-old environmental educator, said she first attended the vigil by herself at age 15, after a teacher showed video clips of the crackdown in class. The vigil was the first political event she had attended, and she says it prompted her political awakening.
“I was very moved,” she said. “I grew up thinking Hong Kongers were very apathetic. I never thought that there would be so many in Hong Kong who would take a stand over their conscience.”
Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Javier C. Hernández from Taipei, Taiwan. Elaine Yu contributed reporting from Hong Kong.