06/01/2023, 13.17
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Tiananmen anniversary: Hong Kong's forced silence on 4th of June

by Gianni Criveller *

No vigil in Victoria Park or even suffrage Masses for the victims of the Beijing crackdown 34 years ago. The authorities threaten an iron fist against 'acts that endanger national security'. Along with political freedom in Hong Kong, the hope and joy of the people has also been abrogated. The meeting in prison with Lee Cheuk-yan, who for years has been the soul of the commemorations: even behind bars he remains a free and strong man.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Every year since 1990, 4 June has been a key date for Hong Kong. The city was the only place in the world where the 'Tiananmen Square Massacre', which took place in Beijing on 4 June 1989 (with incidents and victims in other cities in China as well), was remembered in an organised and highly participatory manner.

Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and social status gathered in Victoria Park, and gave life to a spectacle of light, life, active citizenship, song and emotion, and the testimony of the victims' families.

It was Hong Kong at its best: a large and peaceful people just asking for freedom and democracy. It continued after 1997, when Hong Kong became part of China again, retaining a 'high degree of autonomy' and under the principle of 'one country two systems'. Nor had the massive popular participation ever waned. Young people also attended: it was a great sign of confidence and hope, for Hong Kong and for China.

The founder and leader of this gathering was, for very long years, the charismatic leader Szeto Wah, much loved by the people. When he died in 2011, he was replaced by trade unionist and parliamentarian Lee Cheuk-yan, now in jail for 'illegal assembly' and awaiting trial on even more serious charges.

Since 2020, the vigil at Victoria Park has been considered illegal: first under the convenient justification of the pandemic; then due to the implementation of the National Security Act, introduced on 1 July 2020.

The law wiped out the democratic movement, parties and grassroots organisations. To try to disguise the vacuum this year, pro-Beijing associations obtained permission to organise a fair between 3 and 5 June in Victoria Park in what they call a mere 'coincidence'. But the truth is that along with political freedom, the hope and joy of the people has been abrogated. 

The Catholic Church, thanks to the Justice and Peace Commission, organised an ecumenical prayer in Victoria Park an hour before the big rally. Holy Masses were also celebrated in suffrage and commemoration of the victims. These events were very heartfelt and well attended by the faithful, with Card. Joseph Zen as the protagonist. Even in 2021, in spite of the dramatic change in the political climate and the National Security Law already in force, commemorative Holy Masses were celebrated in seven churches, with great participation of the people. Not any more, and this year less than ever.

The diocese prayed for the Church in China on 24 May, during the day of prayer instituted by Benedict XVI. In his message, Bishop Stephen Chow, describing the apostolic community, emphasised the importance of the prayer that the Chinese Catholic community addresses to Mary, Help of Christians, to obtain the strength to face what the future holds.

The diocese, through Fr Thomas Law, in charge of liturgical life, invited the faithful to live inwardly on 4 June, which this year falls on a Sunday, remembering what they wish to remember. "I will attend the parish Mass," wrote an activist from Hong Kong, "this year the commemoration will be only in my heart. In the meantime, the courageous Justice and Peace Commission has undergone a significant downsizing of objectives and even had its name changed. Perhaps as a protective precaution.

The authorities do not want any exception to the silence. The Secretary for Security (i.e. Minister of the Interior) Chris Tang has peremptorily threatened to take severe repressive measures against those who use 4 June to commit 'acts that endanger national security'. He speciously referred to those who call for Hong Kong's independence (an issue totally alien to the pro-democracy movement) and those who act to subvert central power.

This is an explicit and intimidating reference to offences under the National Security Act. In fact, in past years, activists who had attempted to commemorate the event through sudden, small rallies were arrested or dispersed by the police, and some of them sentenced to heavy sentences.

In the middle of Victoria Park, during the 31 editions of the vigil, the 'Pillar of Shame' was placed, an 8 metre high statue by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, depicting the Tiananmen martyrs. The statue, normally located at the University of Hong Kong, was removed permanently. In recent days, the police also reportedly seized it because an attempt was made to include it in a subversive exhibition in Yuan Long, a remote location in the New Territories.

We have said it and written it before, we can only repeat it: in Hong Kong, political freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, academic freedom and freedom of association is over. The number of people leaving the city is substantial.

The numerous droves of citizens, whole families with young children and many young people, who on the evening of 4 June went peacefully and hopefully to Victoria Park seem like a memory of another time, another life. Yet it was until a few years ago, until 2019. 

Last 25 March, I visited Lee Cheuk-yan, the main protagonist of the Tiananmen vigils mentioned above, one of the most notorious imprisoned and convicted democratic leaders, in Stanley Prison. His first experience of imprisonment was in 1989 in Beijing, where he had gone to bring the solidarity of the Hong Kong people to the Tiananmen students.

After returning to Hong Kong, Lee lived his life as a Chinese citizen and as a Christian, trade unionist and parliamentarian as a commitment to freedom, democracy and justice. Now his ideals are defeated across the board. Our meeting in prison lasted only 15 minutes, and there was glass between us. As I picked up the phone, I wondered what words I should say to encourage him. I did not need to. It was he who gave me courage. I met a free and strong man.

* PIME missionary and sinologist

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Arrest warrant for exiled activists Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung, for attending Tiananmen vigil
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Hong Kong police: pandemic means no May 1 procession. June 4th Vigil also at risk
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