MAE SOT, THAILAND - For the second year in a row, authorities have banned the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong that usually attracts thousands of people in memory of the Chinese government's crackdown in Beijing in 1989.
Thirty-two years ago, thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in Beijing demonstrating against the Chinese government and demanding economic and political reforms. After several weeks, China's People's Liberation Army occupied the area with tanks and opened fire against the student-led demonstrators, killing an unknown numbers of demonstrators.
Thousands of mourners in Hong Kong have attended the annual remembrance vigil for decades, but authorities banned it for the first time last year, citing the global pandemic. The event is illegal in mainland China.
Up to 7,000 police officers were reportedly deployed Friday to handle potential gatherings, with 3,000 alone stationed at Hong Kong's Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, the usual location for the memorial. Authorities again pointed to COVID-19 and the current four-person cap on gatherings as this year's reason the vigil could not go ahead.
Police also warned that any protesters who defied the ban, chanted slogans or wore black — a color affiliated with anti-government protesters in 2019 — would be arrested.
Swedish journalist Johan Nylander told VOA that although the park was nearly empty, the atmosphere was "hostile" Friday, saying the police warned him he would be arrested.
"Every street corner you had big groups of police. And also in the park, police everywhere. Five percent of the park was still open but was heavily guarded by police.
"I was taking pictures, not in the off-limit area, and the police stormed up to me and said, no, you're not allowed to take photographs. I had been there three to four minutes and it almost happened immediately.
"He was clearly threatening to arrest me if I didn't leave," Nylander added.
Earlier in the day, Hong Kong police arrested pro-democracy human rights activist Chow Hang Tung for allegedly promoting unauthorized assembly.
Chow, a lawyer who had represented at least one defendant during the bail hearing for the 47 activists charged under the national security law earlier this year, is also the vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance, which organizes the annual vigil.
Her arrest is believed to stem from a social media post that discussed the Hong Kong Alliance's failed appeal for the vigil to go ahead, according to local reports.
Her colleague, Lee Cheuk Yan, the Hong Kong Alliance chairman, is in jail following illegal assembly offenses dating back to 2019. Prior to his imprisonment, Lee was pessimistic on the possibility of large rallies being legally approved on sensitive dates in Hong Kong, including the Tiananmen Square vigil.
"It can be very difficult, it's not the Tiananmen Square vigil, it's everything that has attraction for the masses," the activist told VOA earlier this year.
Lee, who was born in mainland China, was one of the protesters who survived the events in Beijing. He was interrogated by Chinese authorities for his role in Beijing at the time but was released and escaped back into Hong Kong.
Despite the gathering ban firmly in force, Hong Kong residents have found other ways to remember the date.
Social media posts showed how individuals had attended the park the day before, on June 3, to show their respects. At Hong Kong University, a ceremony took place around Pillar of Shame of Hong Kong — a concrete sculpture depicting 50 twisted bodies as a representation of those who died during the Tiananmen Square protests. Others have told VOA they plan to attend Remembrance Mass, an event to commemorate the crackdown in churches across the city.
Emily Lau, a former Democratic Party chairperson, is one prominent political figure who planned to attend mass in the evening.
She told VOA, "The annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park shows many people will not forget the atrocities 32 years ago.
"The banning of the Victoria Park gathering last year and this year shows the Chinese government, and the Hong Kong government, don't want the people to remember. The Hong Kong people want the authorities to investigate what happened in 1989 and punish those responsible for the massacre," she added.
Wong Yat Chin, organizer of Hong Kong's Student Politicism, a political group aiming to promote values of democracy, was to screen a documentary with an open forum about the crackdown, and about more recent events in Hong Kong.
"As we have officially descended into the age of one country, one system, any slight act of dissent has been sanctioned by the regime, which has caused the complete loss of fundamental freedom and rights, blatant violations of our human rights," he said.
Livestreams from local Hong Kong media showed Wong Yat Chin was later handcuffed and detained by police officers during his presentation. Authorities then raised a warning flag to alert gathering crowds to disperse or risk arrest.
Last year's vigil was canceled for the first time, but thousands of people turned up anyway, lighting candles and holding up lights from their phones. The night ended without incident in the immediate area.
Twenty-four activists were charged in August for participating in or organizing the illegal rally. Joshua Wong was one of four activists jailed in May and given a 10-month sentence, but was already serving time for other offenses. The remaining 20 people are awaiting sentencing.
Under the "one country, two systems" agreement signed by Britain and China in 1997, after the city was transferred back to Chinese rule, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would retain a "high degree of autonomy" until 2047.
After 2019's pro-democracy protests, Beijing implemented a national security law for Hong Kong that prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted.