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As Hong Kong cracks down, Canadian Tiananmen Square vigils keep flame burning

VANCOUVER — Cherie Wong says she can hardly recognize today's Hong Kong, the city where she grew up and the former worldwide centre of annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
Activists in Canada say Hong Kong's crackdown on commemorations of the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square has injected new vigour and significance to vigils in overseas communities. Police officers stand guard in Causeway Bay area, on the 35th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown, in Hong Kong, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chan Long Hei

VANCOUVER — Cherie Wong says she can hardly recognize today's Hong Kong, the city where she grew up and the former worldwide centre of annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

"It's heartbreaking, definitely, thinking back to my family members who started attending June 4 memorials in Hong Kong from 1989 until pretty recently," said Wong, an activist now living in Canada. "Hong Kong's always been a space where Chinese speakers and Chinese communities are able to come together and commemorate a really huge tragedy that happened across China at the time."

As authorities in Hong Kong scrub out memorials and crack down on signs of dissent, activists in Canada say such recent suppression of dissidents is motivating a new generation of protesters to step up in their effort to keep memories of the tragedy alive.

The Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement has organized a vigil in British Columbia every year since 1989, but chairwoman Mable Tung said the gathering has moved from outside the Chinese consulate to David Lam Park in Vancouver to accommodate more people in the past two years.

Tung said many of the new attendees are former Hong Kong residents who have moved away from the city and are inspired to participate in vigils by the crackdown in their home city since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests started in 2014. There were mass protests again in 2019 that triggered a new wave of suppression, including the introduction of a sweeping national security law.

"I briefly talked about it (with one attendee)," Tung said. "She just came a year ago. She said in Hong Kong she never went to any of the candlelight vigils in Victoria Park, but she started last year to come to our candlelight vigil.

"Her rationale is, because she couldn't do it in Hong Kong now, she loved to do it to say to the Chinese Communist Party that 'I still have my freedom here.'"

Vigils were also held in Toronto, where protesters were planning a march from the Chinese consulate to the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.

The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Toronto and Vancouver did not respond to a request for comment.

This year is the is the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, when hundreds, if not thousands, were killed by Chinese troops.

Hong Kong was for decades the worldwide centre of June 4 commemorations, with crowds sometimes exceeding 100,000 at an annual vigil before organizers disbanded in 2021 as the government stamped out public displays of opposition.

Sensitivity toward protesting or even mentioning June 4 is high. Social media video shot in Hong Kong on Tuesday showed one elderly man being surrounded by police and taken away when he silently traced out the Chinese characters for eight, nine, six and four with his hand in the air — an apparent reference to the date.

"What I see in Hong Kong right now is not Hong Kong anymore," Tung said. "It just changed from vibrancy into just another city of China. So of course, no freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. And as you can see the last four years, it has no candle light vigil in Victoria Park, which used to be millions of candles that we can see.

"It used to be a very free city. Not anymore. Even (if) anyone just wants to light a little candle, they still cannot tolerate it."

Among the few visibly protesting have been foreign diplomats. Candles adorned the windows of the U.S. consulate, while the consuls general of Germany and the Netherlands joined a representative from the European Union office in Hong Kong to walk through Victoria Park, where the mass vigil used to be held.

Tung and Wong both said the vigil vanishing from Hong Kong gives events such as those in Vancouver and Toronto more significance.

Wong, who was born after 1989, said her parents took her to the Victoria Park vigil every year when she was growing up, forming her personal connection to June 4.

She said resistance and opposition to crackdowns in Hong Kong continue in subtle ways such as people turning on their cellphone lights to mimic candlelight, but overseas communities must play a crucial role and "be their voice."

"I think of it as we're standing on the shoulders of the activists who came before us," Wong said.

"Since as long as I could remember, my family's always spoke about Tiananmen students and the Chinese students who stood up demanding democratization in China as people who led the way despite being suppressed and violently beaten down."

Billy Fung, who recently graduated from the University of British Columbia, was arrested in 2016 in Hong Kong when he was the student union president at the University of Hong Kong.

Fung said he is "saddened" to see Hong Kong cracking down on commemorations for Tiananmen Square, adding that the increased enforcement of security laws reflects the heavier hand controlling information and discourse in the city.

"Because I'm a librarian, I am very much concerned about the freedom of information and the freedom of flow of information," he said. "In Hong Kong, there are so-called sensitive books banned in the public library. And for those at the University of Hong Kong, there is a special collection that may have some books that are relating to the June 4 massacre.

"For those who visit the special collection, they now have to register their name, address and phone number," he said. "So, I am very concerned with the inheritance of such memory to our next generation."

Commemorative events have also grown elsewhere overseas, with people attending events in Washington, London and Taipei.

Hong Kong leader John Lee was asked Tuesday if residents could still publicly mourn the crackdown, and while not answering directly, he noted that “the threat to national security is real.”

— With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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