Held every year since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in China, the rally had been banned for fear of coronaviruses, a move many considered political in a city where infections are reduced to a handful per month.
However, early Thursday night hundreds and then thousands of people defied the order, as well as the signs and fences around Victoria Park, to occupy two large soccer fields where the rally has traditionally been held. While the numbers were down in previous years, and the generally well-organized monument had a rather chaotic impromptu feel, it was by no means insignificant, a major sign of defiance of Beijing.
Organizer and former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan led the crowd in chants of “end one-party rule” and “democracy for China!”
Others chanted slogans from last year’s anti-government protests, including “fight for freedom, support Hong Kong” and a more recent saying, “Independence from Hong Kong, the only way out.”
Those slogans could be illegal in the near future, as Beijing intends to impose a draconian national security law that prohibits sedition, secession and separatism. Similar laws have been used to crack down on dissenters and pro-democracy activists in China.
That impending law is currently being drafted in Beijing and will be automatically enforced in Hong Kong through a rarely used constitutional gate, bypassing the city legislature. The law was suspended over this year’s Tiananmen memorial even before the event was officially banned, as both the opposition and pro-government figures have predicted similar protests that could be illegal in the future.
Hong Kong has long been the only place on Chinese soil where there is a massive commemoration of the June 4 crackdown. This fact has been a kind of litmus test for the autonomy of the city of China, which has been considerably reduced in recent years, culminating in the national security law, which Beijing has said is necessary to avoid the type of riots violent that were seen last year.
That unease had resumed when Hong Kong emerged from the coronavirus crisis and regulations on social distancing were relaxed. But police responded to past protests with overwhelming numbers, and used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse several meetings in recent weeks.
On Thursday there was a complete change in tactics as the police largely remained out of sight as several thousand people ignored the fences and signs to gather illegally in Victoria Park. It was a surprising, perhaps deliberate, contrast to protests in the United States that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam pointed out Tuesday to accuse his critics in Washington of “double standards”.
The crowds began to disperse shortly after 8 p.m. Local time, after the lighting of candles and a moment of silence to remember the hundreds, possibly thousands, who were killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.
At its peak, the crowd spread across two soccer fields, and while there were far more gaps than in previous years, it was a great show of defiance in a city that in recent weeks seemed shocked by news from national security. law.
The next major test, by both the pro-democracy movement and the authorities, will take place as early as next week, which foresees two key anniversaries of last year’s protest movement.
About 1 million people marched against an extradition bill with China on June 9, 2019, while three days later, protesters blocked the city’s legislature and clashed with police to prevent the law from being passed. . He finally withdrew in September 2019, by which time the anti-government movement had grown substantially, with its goals expanded beyond a single bill.