HONG KONG—Thousands of people in Hong Kong defied a huge police presence and threats of jail to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, seeking to keep alive an annual vigil that has become an important symbol of opposition to China’s continuing crackdown on freedoms in this former British colony.
Though Hong Kong authorities had banned the annual candlelight vigil, groups of people began streaming at around 8 p.m. Friday toward the city’s Victoria Park, where it is held each year, many with cellphone flashlights shining. The procession flowed mostly around the perimeter of the park, skirting police arrayed at the park. Many more protesters strolled with cellphone lights on in other districts around the city.
The seemingly innocuous acts carried huge risks for participants, with police warning those gathering in streets that they faced jail for unlawful assembly. Last year, Beijing cracked down on this technically semiautonomous Chinese city with a sweeping national security law meant to crush pro-democracy dissent that erupted in mass protests in 2019. Most of the city’s democracy leaders have since been jailed, put on trial or chosen to go into exile.
Earlier Friday, police arrested two people they accused of using social media to promote the vigil, which police had banned citing social-distancing rules tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
One of those arrested was Chow Hang-tung, a lawyer and human-rights activist, who is a senior member of a group that organized previous vigils. Several other members of the group were recently prosecuted for holding a vigil last year despite a similar ban.
Participants this year employed symbolic gestures. A handful of people lighted candles on a railing outside the park until it became clear police were on their way. Someone placed a line of miniature Lego-like tanks on the ground, reminiscent of the line of tanks temporarily blocked by a single protester in Beijing in 1989.
The police presence was overwhelming. By early afternoon, hundreds of police had gathered in the park and in the surrounding commercial districts, checking the identification of passersby. Later in the evening, police in riot gear chased younger pedestrians around a busy shopping district near the park, temporarily detaining some.
Pro-democracy groups say the government is trying to dim the flames of the only mass Tiananmen remembrance held on Chinese soil. Restrictions on gatherings remain in place in Hong Kong, which hasn’t recorded a local and untraceable Covid-19 infection for more than a month.
The atmosphere was solemn at one of the seven Catholic churches that held a special commemorative Mass. In the district of Sai Wan Ho, hundreds of people, including many who wore black, filled the church and its surrounding areas.
Like many others across Hong Kong, Kammy Lau said she decided it would be safer to mark the occasion at home this year. She joined a meeting on Zoom with her churchmates and broke down in tears while leading a prayer.
“I’ve attended the June 4 vigil for decades but this year we have to hide in our homes and go on Zoom for a prayer meeting. I felt cowardly and useless,” Ms. Lau said. “But in our hearts, we are still insisting on the truth.”
Every year since the 1989 gunning down of student-led protesters by Chinese troops around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, crowds have gathered in the park, exercising freedoms that were enjoyed for decades by residents in the former British colony, in contrast with their mainland counterparts.
Police Senior Superintendent Law Kwok-hoi said a woman surnamed Chow and a man were arrested Friday because they had used their social-media accounts to advertise or publicize an unauthorized assembly. The two were “extremely irresponsible” and could cause others to break the law, he said.
Ms. Chow, who is 36 and serves as vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organizes the vigil, was filmed being led into a car by what appeared to be plainclothes officers outside her office in the downtown Central district of Hong Kong.
The police described the other detainee as a 20-year-old food-delivery worker named Mr. Cheung.
When pressed by reporters to explain what their social-media posts said, Mr. Law said the case was still under investigation and declined to elaborate on the content or when they were posted.
According to Ms. Chow’s aides, police allegations against her centered around a Facebook post she wrote on May 29, after the Hong Kong Alliance lost its appeal against the ban on the vigil. She said she would light a candle at 8 p.m. on Friday in a personal capacity and in a place where everyone can see. “On June 4 this year, let us keep using candlelight to fight for justice for the dead and guard the dignity of the living,” she wrote.
Ms. Chow remained in custody and couldn’t be reached for comment. Richard Tsoi, a member of the Hong Kong Alliance, said it was worrying that the police didn’t provide any concrete evidence in arresting the pair. He added that the police appeared to be trying to intimidate the public through the arrests.
The Tiananmen vigil had long been a fixture on Hong Kong’s political calendar. It was a somber spectacle, as tens of thousands of people—among them mainland Chinese visitors—sang songs, listened to impassioned speeches denouncing China’s Communist Party rule and observed moments of silence as they turned the vast park into a sea of candles.
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