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Hong Kong officials announced Tuesday they would ban the annual June 4 Victoria Park vigil to commemorate the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square due to coronavirus restrictions. The vigil was banned for similar reasons in 2020.

The Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported that Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) has suspended processing applications “across the board” for leases that could be part of the Victoria Park commemoration. A department spokesman implied this suspension might be temporary, but gave no hint of when application processing might resume.

“In response to the latest situation of Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus], the department has suspended processing of booking applications for free recreational and sports venues for non-designated activities until further notice,” said the official LCSD statement.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-controlled chief executive, Carrie Lam, also insisted on Tuesday that the Tiananmen vigil has not been formally canceled — but her comments were laced with the implicit threat that participants could find themselves accused of treason under the draconian “national security law” China imposed last summer.

“It much depends on what is going to happen in those gatherings and whether they will fall into the offences expressly prohibited in the national security law — that is involved in secession, subversion of the Central government and the Hong Kong SAR government, engaging in terrorist activities or collusion with an external party to endanger national security,” Lam said ominously.

“The constitution clearly spells out that socialism with Chinese characteristics is led by the Chinese Communist Party. With the premise that we should respect the constitution, we should also respect the ruling Chinese Communist Party,” Lam argued, raising the question of whether there is a “respectful” way to remember that the Party murdered thousands of its critics at Tiananmen Square in 1989, many of them young students.

The HKFP noted Hong Kong’s “fourth wave” of coronavirus infections has remained at “low levels,” local officials describe the situation as “generally stable,” and community sports and recreational programs are resuming. The implication was that political considerations played a larger role in shutting down the Victoria Park vigil than health concerns.

“The Covid-19 situation has shown signs of easing and the government has also reopened many venues to the public. I find this ban on Covid-19 grounds a bit strange,” Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Tuesday. 

Tsoi’s alliance has organized the vigil since its inception. As the SCMP pointed out, the very existence of the alliance is now arguably illegal under China’s national security law since its manifesto includes a call to end the “one-party dictatorship” that rules Hong Kong. Alliance vice chairwoman Chow Hang-tung insisted the group will not alter its manifesto.

“If we are genuinely fighting for democracy, there is no way we would agree with one-party dictatorship,” Chow declared. “We can only act based on our principles, not on any legal advice.”

Chow indicated that if applications for holding the June 4 event in Victoria Park are not approved, her group will submit applications to hold numerous smaller vigils on soccer fields.

Victoria Park has long been the scene of the world’s largest Tiananmen Square vigil and the only major observance held on Chinese soil. 2020 marked the first time in 30 years the vigil was banned.

“Thousands showed up anyway to commemorate victims of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. Twenty-six pro-democracy figures have since been charged with participating and inciting others to participate in the unauthorised assembly last year,” the HKFP recalled.

Tens of thousands of attendees at the banned 2020 event knocked over police barricades around Victoria Park and held the annual candlelight vigil. They made it clear they were both remembering the Communist Party’s slaughter of democracy activists in 1989 and protesting the loss of Hong Kong’s autonomy to Chinese control. For the first time in the history of the event, there were scuffles between police and demonstrators.

Given the Hong Kong administration’s enthusiasm for prosecuting violators of last year’s ban on the vigil, it is possible the authorities are hoping defiant participants who insist on defying this year’s ban will give them a pretext for cracking down on the organizers and banning the Hong Kong Alliance.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported Tuesday that Hong Kong police are intensively investigating other protest organizers, including the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), whose annual July 1 march to protest the United Kingdom’s handover of Hong Kong to China drew over a million participants during the 2019 pro-democracy movement.

CHRF leaders said the police now treat them like a subversive group instead of cooperating with them as a civic organization, with more restrictions on political activity imposed every year. The CHRF believes the police are looking for any evidence of foreign support, which could be used as a pretext to ban the organization under the Chinese national security law.

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