Johnny Patterson

Why Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Square vigil will be different this year

Why Hong Kong's Tiananmen Square vigil will be different this year
A candle stub from a previous annual vigil that marked the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown (Getty images)
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Every year since the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, Hong Kongers have gathered in their thousands to remember the fallen. The annual Tiananmen Vigil, where candles light up Victoria Park, was an event laden with significance. It was a statement that Hong Kongers would not forget those who had died under the heavy boot of the totalitarian state. It was a symbol of the city’s distinctive history and its autonomy from Beijing.

Even last year, despite the authorities banning the protest under the pretext of Covid-19 restrictions, thousands gathered peacefully.

It's unlikely the same will happen tomorrow. The organisers of last year’s vigil are in jail. This year’s vigil has been banned. And anyone who attends has been threatened with up to five years in prison. 

Hong Kong is now a place where peaceful protestors are routinely being locked up for crimes which used to be punished with a slap on the wrist. Those deemed ‘subversive’ under the National Security Law could face life imprisonment under trumped-up charges.

In March 2019, I visited Hong Kong to hear from leaders in the democratic movement about what governments around the world could do to stand with Hong Kong, as the city's freedoms were slowly suffocated in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.

Two years on, and half of the thirty or so people I spoke with that week are now behind bars.

I think of Benny Tai, the softly spoken, bespectacled, idealistic law professor whose book laden room was filled with the works of Bonhoeffer, Arendt and Solzhenitsyn. He spoke of the need for global civil society solidarity among freedom loving peoples, and for academic, cultural and arts exchanges. He spoke of his hope for a better future. His card was already marked back then for his involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. With a National Security Law charge against his name, the future for him looks bleak.

I think of Joshua Wong. The hyperactive student activist. Drinking coffee. Texting. Talking to the media. And briefing me. Last month, Wong was sentenced to ten more months in prison for participating in an unauthorised assembly to mark the 2020 Tiananmen anniversary. 

Then there are the lesser-known names who made up the backbone of Hong Kong's democratic movement. The students, accountants, lawyers, teachers, pilots, social workers. Beijing has tried to paint these people as extremists and rebels. The reality is rather different. These Hong Kongers are just striving for a better future for the city they love.

Yet the gross injustice of the National Security Law is that it treats every single one of them like a terrorist. Nearly 50 democrats have been charged with ‘subversion’ for the crime of merely standing in a primary election to select the democratic slate. The majority have been denied bail and could be held in detention for more than a year before they face trial. There are reports that some have even been placed in solitary confinement. There is no possible justification for such degrading treatment of respected public servants.

What can we do in response to these trends?

First and foremost, we can pick up the baton from our friends in Hong Kong and ensure that the memory of Tiananmen never fades. Tomorrow is a day to remember those who died at the hands of the tanks, a day to be thankful for the liberties we have, and a day to stand in solidarity with those being repressed as we speak.

But the British government should go further and make the treatment of political prisoners, including access to a fair trial, a central plank in its diplomacy with China.

Among those facing trial is Jimmy Lai, a British citizen and owner of Apple Daily, the city’s largest pro-democracy newspaper. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case has seen the full force of the Foreign Office’s diplomatic efforts grind into gear to protect a British subject. The same should be true in this case for any British citizens facing trumped up charges under the National Security Law.

Yet this is not only about British citizens. It is also about the other Hong Kongers whose liberties were supposed to be safeguarded by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now such people face imprisonment, purely for voicing their opposition to totalitarian rule. As co-signatories of the Joint Declaration, we are partially culpable. On Tiananmen day, we must not forget that.