Loading Now
Censorship, Surveillance, and Detentions in Hong Kong Ahead of 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre
Censorship, Surveillance, and Detentions in Hong Kong Ahead of 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre

Censorship, Surveillance, and Detentions in Hong Kong Ahead of 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre

For decades on June 4, Hongkongers rallied in their thousands at the city’s Victoria Park to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Hong Kong was the only location in China where such large-scale public vigils could take place. But following the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law, authorities have prohibited the annual ritual and forced Hongkongers to find ever more subtle ways to highlight this sensitive date without incurring legal punishments. The lead-up to this year’s June 4 was no exception. 

Several pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong told the Associated Press that police inquired about their plans, and one was asked not to go to “sensitive places.” Last year on June 3rd, performance artist Sanmu Chan was detained by police in Causeway Bay while shouting “don’t forget June 4” and “Hongkongers don’t be afraid.” This year, as the Hong Kong Free Press reported, Chan was detained on the same day and in the same place while doing a piece of performance art:

Dozens of uniform and plainclothes police officers were stationed across the shopping district, concentrated around East Point Road, Hennessy Road and Lockhart Road. An armoured police vehicle was briefly seen parked outside SOGO mall.

HKFP reporters witnessed Chan write the Chinese characters for “8964” with his finger in the air, referencing the date of the 1989 crackdown.

He also mimed pouring wine onto the ground to mourn the dead, per a Chinese tradition, before police moved in.

Over 30 police officers took Chan away for questioning and created a cordon to separate the artist from the media. [Source]

Chan was later released from custody, but others were not so lucky. On Monday, police arrested a man for sedition in connection with Tiananmen Massacre anniversary posts. Describing police’s increased presence ahead of the June 4 anniversary, Jess Ma and William Yiu from the South China Morning Post reported on the arrest:

The force’s National Security Department, meanwhile, arrested a man on Monday on suspicion of helping to publish material linked to the crackdown, making him the eighth suspect in the first sedition case under the city’s domestic national security law.

Police said the 62-year-old man was arrested in Sha Tin on suspicion of committing offences with seditious intent, which came on the back of the first arrests made last week under the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance.

A source confirmed the man was a maternal uncle of activist Chow Hang-tung. Chow and her mother, Medina Chow Lau, were also arrested last week. [Source]

On its Facebook page, the Hong Kongers in Leeds exile group posted, “On the eve of a sensitive date that officials won’t mention, a group of Hong Kongers has scaled the mist-shrouded slopes of Lion Rock to shine glory on the summit,” alongside photos of lights making up the numbers six and four to denote June 4. AFP also reported that a university students’ publication axed its campaign to collect people’s accounts of the crackdown due to “factors we cannot resist,” and an independent bookstore said on its Instagram that several police officers took down names of customers after its staff had put “5.35” on its window, a coded reference to June 4. 

The Christian Times, a Hong Kong Christian paper that traditionally has published commemorations of the massacre before each anniversary, left its front page blank this year. A small notice in the center of the page stated: “This issue’s front page feature could not be published due to reasons. We hope that readers can forgive us!” The paper published an editorial explaining the decision, that CDT has translated in full. Titled, “Praying Atop the Shoulders of Collective Memory,” the editorial decried Hong Kong’s current political environment and argued that historical memory should continue to be protected: 

The edge of spring and summer of that year is the collective memory of a generation of Hong Kongers — it inspires and defines our political ethic. It will live forever in collective memory. An honest reckoning with history is not intended to prolong hatreds, still less to defame or incite, but rather to provide the basis for repentance and reconciliation, to allow society to see the truth, learn from its mistakes, and prevent the repetition of the same errors. When the writers of the Bible wrote on historical personages, they recorded all the failures in their lives without omission—no matter how close their relationship with God. Israelites were God’s chosen people and the writers of the Bible were unsparing in recording their faults and crimes. Honest reckonings with the past are the only way to face the future with the grace and forgiveness of the Lord of history. 

Those days, striding towards ‘97 and the millennium, were not fleeting. Focus on the passing of those years has, naturally, risen and fallen. The commemoration [in Victoria Park] was also once mocked as “karaoke” and “an empty exercise.” It is only in recent years that Hong Kong society has changed. The world has been turned upside down. The future is fettered by circumstance. Even a prayer offered from historical memory might become subject to official “attention.” The experiences and memories of certain people have become extraordinarily sensitive. It is our duty as a media outlet to live up to history and our readers—the only way to do so in the current situation is by turning paragraphs into blank boxes and a page of whiteness. 

Memorializing victims and caring for survivors is a form of basic human decency, and an expression of benevolence and charity. For the faithful, memorial and care expressed from the heart and prayers for a more just and peaceful future society will certainly be heard by the Lord—no matter how lonely the voice, no matter its provenance. 

Christianity does not endorse any set political system. Rather, it asks: are a political system’s assumptions about human nature in accord with observations from a faithful perspective? Under different political systems, what is the tolerance for the practice of justice and mercy in society? Will the population living under that system have their darker natures balanced out or will they be exacerbated, even to the point that they turn against their neighbors? Faith has something to say about all these points. One thing remains unchanging; we must pray for wisdom and humility in hope that the system might respect the truth, endorse the righteous and punish the wicked. More importantly, we pray for the people in hope that the country will be peaceful and just, and that neighbor watch over neighbor. 

Casting our eyes towards the long flow of history, a few decades is but the blink of an eye, and there is but little an individual can do. That being said, when looking from the broadest historical perspective, even if one cannot see clearly what the Lord of history has in mind, one can always divine the workings of good and evil in society and trace the path of a life lived with God in an imperfect world—it’s the path of others, and our path too. Who knows how the Lord will use history or today’s faithfulness to write the final chapters of history? Let us protect historical memory, stand on Her shoulders, and pray to the Lord. [Chinese]

Printing blank pages has been a form of protest against censorship since at least 1924, but it has had special salience in China since the 2022 White Paper Movement. Across China, mass mourning for the victims of a deadly fire in Urumqi turned into protests against COVID lockdown measures, and, in some places, demonstrations for increased freedoms including democracy, freedom of speech, the right to remember history, and the downfall of Xi Jinping. 

In an article published in Catholic newspaper the Sunday Examiner, Hong Kong’s top priest, Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan, also memorialized the massacre. At The South China Morning Post, Ng Kang-chung: 

Hong Kong’s top Catholic priest has called on residents to “proactively forgive” those who inflicted wounds during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and move on from “the dark space of unending sadness and resentments” caused by the event for the sake of “reconciliation and healing”.

Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan, in an article published on Friday in Catholic newspaper the Sunday Examiner, also reminded readers that “to forgive is not to forget”, though he did not explicitly mention the June 4 incident.

[…] The incident “left a deep wound in parts of our psyche, though it has been buried and scarred over. Yet it remains a sore spot that requires proper attention for healing”.

The cardinal said his own feelings about the military crackdown on the protests “remain alive”, but his faith prompted him to “forgive whoever and whatever” had caused harm. [Source]

While discussing the recent Article 23 arrests revolving around Chow Hang-tung, formerly one of the main organizers of the Tiananmen Massacre vigil in Hong Kong, Secretary for Security Chris Tang referred to the anniversary only as “an approaching sensitive date” and claimed that “[t]he date itself is not important.” But as Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In truth, as a landmark in the history of authoritarian politics, June 4 has rarely been more important.” At Global Voices, Oiwan Lam described how Chow Hang-tung planned to push back against authorities’ attempts to censor vigils and rewrite history:

What’s so seditious in the posts published on Chow Hang-tung’s club Facebook page? Many pointed to a post published on April 1 2024, which invited people to share their stories related to June 4 so that she could present them as testimony during her subversion trial (the post is written in both Chinese and English):

“The evidence that the prosecution currently intends to rely on includes leaflets and publications issued by the Alliance and other organizations since 1989, as well as video recordings of candlelight vigils… If they claim that everything that has happened over the past thirty years is evidence against us, then all participants in the past thirty years can be our witnesses….if you have been one of the candlelight bearers in the past thirty years, whether on stage or off, inside or outside the venue, locally or overseas, I sincerely invite you to leave your testimony in this trial…”

The Facebook page tagged the call “A memory battle against the rewriting of memories” #記憶和改寫記憶的抗爭, and Chow started presenting her own testimony/memories about the June 4 commemoration beginning April 30, 2024 — the date marks a 35-day countdown for the 35th anniversary of June 4 crackdowns.

On May 10, she was placed in solitary confinement in prison. However, her written June 4 memories continued until the six were arrested on May 28. [Source]

At The Diplomat, Yaqiu Wang argued that the Hong Kong government’s persecution of Chow reflects its intent to stamp out memories of the Tiananmen Massacre:

Beijing’s determination to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms and to erase history is illustrated by the multiple, years-long prosecutions against Chow. However, Chow’s courage and resolve in the face of this repression exemplify Hong Kongers’ collective determination to fight back.

[…] The fact that the authorities keep throwing new charges at Chow for the one thing she did – organize commemorations to honor those killed by their government for peacefully demanding freedom and democracy – only speaks to the insecurity that she inspires in her own government and in Beijing.

While others arrested under the NSL chose to plead guilty and accepted gag orders in exchange for shorter prison sentences or bail releases, Chow refuses to be silenced even behind bars. She wrote in a 2021 letter from her cell to her supporters: “I reject [the characterization of me as] unfortunate… It is actually a great fortune to be able to fight for one’s own ideas. How many people in the world have such an opportunity? Against the biggest communist dictatorship in the world, no less. What a challenge.”

The last time I saw Chow Hang-tung was in a crowded restaurant in Hong Kong at the end of 2019, when local pro-democracy protests were raging. I’ve forgotten what we said to each other, but I will always remember the self-assurance and serenity that radiated from someone who knew she was doing the right thing. [Source]

In May, Elaine Yu from The Wall Street Journal profiled Rowena He, a scholar of the Tiananmen Massacre, whose eviction from Hong Kong reflects the shrinking space for academic freedom in the city:

Before leaving Hong Kong two years ago for a fellowship in the U.S., Rowena He shredded the work of her students and wiped the hard drive on her computer.

The prominent scholar of China’s bloody 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square said she feared she could be arrested and forced to turn over their work.

“It’s so brutal and cruel to have to burn your students’ papers, to erase everything in my computer,” He said in a recent interview. “My job is to document history, but personally, I have nothing to hold on to.”

A year later, as she was preparing to return to Hong Kong, immigration officials denied her visa and the Chinese University of Hong Kong fired her from her teaching position, said He, who is a Canadian citizen.

The historian’s story reflects the narrowing space for academic freedom in this former British colony, once a freewheeling bastion of scholarly debate. [Source]

Alexander Boyd contributed content and translations to this post.