Tiananmen square vigil hong kong protest
A previous year's Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong (Image: David Yan)

In Hong Kong last night, for the first time in 30 years, people were denied permission for the annual candlelight vigil that has, in many ways been a lonely beacon of hope for democracy in China. There is a good chance we may not see it again.

The vigil is held on June 4 each year to commemorate the massacre that began on the evening of June 3, 1989 and carried on through the night in and around Tiananmen Square, the very epicentre of the ruling Communist Party’s power in Beijing.

The massacre saw the People’s Liberation Army cut down an unknown number of people. Credible estimates put it higher than 10,000 people, both regular citizens and protesters, military targets occupying the square.

Since that bloody, terrible night, June 4 has become a symbol of the ruthlessness and oppression of the CCP.

This year’s vigil was snuffed out by Hong Kong’s compliant and compromised government, now in full thrall to its master in Beijing. For the first time since the UK handed back the territory in 1997, Hong Kong’s police did not give protesters permission for the vigil.

Nevertheless, citizens defied orders and poured out in numbers. They were met with unsurprising resistance from police.

The excuse, conveniently enough, was fears of spreading COVID-19. Hong Kong has successfully reduced infections to a level where opening the city back up should have been considered. Instead, restrictions were extended to June 5.

The story of the handover is inextricably linked with the events of June 1989, which happened during the final consultation phase of the Basic Law — Hong Kong’s mini-constitution which was supposed to guarantee the “one country, two systems” formula through to 2047.

The Tiananmen Square massacre threw a spanner in the works and the Chinese government devised a toughened-up Basic Law, inserting the now infamous section 23, which dictated that the Hong Kong Legislative Council should implement security laws for the city.

But 1989 thoroughly spooked the people of Hong Kong, a million people marched in the city and gave both financial and physical support to protesters. Suddenly, it was clear that Deng Xiaoping’s China was, after all, not a benign successor to Mao Zedong’s murderous regime.

A trust deficit in the then-budding relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing built on mutual economic self-interest was introduced, one that has fundamentally cruelled the relationship. This has only widened under the more hardline regime of China’s current leader Xi Jinping.

In 2003, Hong Kong Legislative Council’s first attempt to introduce a security law was beaten back by street protests, the next attempt was not made until 16 hears later — last June, with the extradition law that triggered even larger protests that saw up to 2 million Hongkongers take to the streets.

The longevity and intensity of these protests by a new generation of Hong Kong youth — to whom Tiananmen is only a piece of history — firmed Xi’s resolve for Beijing to take the initiative and pass security laws for Hong Kong, officially legislated by China’s rubber stamp parliament on May 28.

Memories of Tiananmen (which was wiped from the history books in the Chinese mainland) and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in the ensuing months are as fresh as yesterday in the mind of CCP leaders.

On this poignant anniversary, China looks particularly twitchy. It is not just threatening Hong Kong but also flexing its muscle on disputed mountain borders with India, a country with which it had a brief border war in 1962 and has engaged in regular skirmishes with since.

The reason for the latest show of force by China, experts say, is for the People’s Liberation Army to parade its latest high-tech military weapons, a warning as it were for India to play nice. Taiwan has also seen some maritime sabre rattling,

It has been a great tradition of the world’s liberal democracies to decry the events of June 4 and offer their support to the people of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — and so they have dutifully lined up this year. But there has been a further snag.

This year, support from the so-called leading nation of the free word, the United States, has been fundamentally compromised after President Donald Trump threatened to call the US military in to suppress protests roiling in US cities.

The echoes of Tiananmen, particularly this week, were all too hideously clear.