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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

China tightens Tiananmen Square access on anniversary of pro-democracy protests

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China tightened already strict access to Tiananmen Square in central Beijing on Sunday, the anniversary of 1989 pro-democracy protests.

In Hong Kong, which had been the last Chinese-controlled territory to hold commemorations, eight people, including activists and artists, were detained on the eve of the 34th anniversary of the crackdown, a move underlining the city’s shrinking room for freedom of expression.

Another 16 or more people were detained around Victoria Park on Sunday.

Police said in a statement late on Saturday that four people were arrested for allegedly disrupting order in public spaces or carrying out acts with seditious intent.

Four others were taken away on suspicion of breaching public peace.

Discussion of the events of June 3/4 1989, when army tanks and infantry descended on central Beijing, has long been suppressed in China and become increasingly off-limits in Hong Kong since a sweeping national security law was imposed in June 2020, effectively barring anyone from holding memorials.

The death toll from the 1989 violence remains unknown and the Communist Party relentlessly harasses those at home or overseas who seek to keep the memory of the events alive.

In Beijing, additional security was seen around Tiananmen Square, which has long been ringed with security checks requiring those entering to show identification.

Those passing on foot or by bicycle in Changan Avenue, north of the square, were also stopped and forced to show identification. People with journalist visas in their passports were told they needed special permission to even approach the area.

Nevertheless, throngs of tourists were seen visiting the famous site, with hundreds queuing to enter the square.

Ahead of the anniversary, a group of mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen crackdown sought redress and issued a statement renewing their call for “truth, compensation and accountability”.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to acknowledge responsibility for the killing of pro-democracy protesters.

“The Chinese government continues to evade accountability for the decades-old Tiananmen massacre, which has emboldened its arbitrary detention of millions, its severe censorship and surveillance, and its efforts to undermine rights internationally,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International said that, while Hong Kong, a former British colony handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, uses colonial-era anti-sedition laws to crack down on dissent, the persistence of non-conforming voices “lays bare the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience”.

“The Hong Kong government’s shameful campaign to stop people marking this anniversary mirrors the censorship of the Chinese central government and is an insult to those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown,” Amnesty said.

Beijing-appointed authorities in Hong Kong have blocked the Tiananmen memorial for the last three years, citing public health grounds. In 2020, thousands defied a police ban to hold the event.

Despite the lifting of most Covid-19 restrictions, the city’s public commemoration this year was muted under a Beijing-imposed national security law that prosecuted or silenced many Hong Kong activists.

Three leaders of the group that used to organise the vigil were charged with subversion under the law. The group itself was disbanded in 2021, after police informed it that it was under investigation for working on behalf of foreign groups, an accusation the group denied.

After the enactment of the sweeping law following massive protests in 2019, Tiananmen-related visual spectacles, including statues at universities, were also removed. Mostly recently, books featuring the events have been pulled off public library shelves.

Asked whether it is legal to mourn the crackdown in public as an individual, Hong Kong leader John Lee said that if anyone breaks the law, “of course the police will have to take action”.

Many Hongkongers, who were unclear what authorities might consider subversive, tried to mark the event in low-profile ways on Sunday.

At Victoria Park, scenes of people rallying for democracy have been replaced by a carnival organised by pro-Beijing groups to mark the city’s 1997 handover to China. Organisers say it will feature a bazaar with food from across China.

Public broadcaster RTHK reported that it understood police would deploy up to 6,000 officers to patrol the streets, including Victoria Park and government headquarters.

At Victoria Park, scenes of people rallying for democracy have been replaced by a carnival organised by pro-Beijing groups to mark the city’s 1997 handover to China.

By about 8.30pm, another 14 people, including activists and a former head of The Hong Kong Journalists Association, were taken away by police in the shopping district Causeway Bay, where Victoria Park is located. It was unclear if they were being arrested.

Sunday’s events reflected the political chill that has sparked a rise in emigration to Britain and other countries and a deep ambivalence among a population that had been strongly engaged in local politics.

A commemoration was held in Taipei, the capital of the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory to be annexed possibly by force.

More than 500 participants turned out to light candles, hear speeches and chant slogans under a heavy rain.

Kacey Wong, an artist who is among the scores of Hong Kong residents who have moved to the island, said the more than 30 years of commemorating the 1989 protests had made it a part of life.

Ms Wong said an artist friend, Sanmu Chen, had been detained along with others while attempting to stage a public street performance in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.

“So, it’s all engrained in our subconscious that we should care and practice our sympathy towards other people who are yearning for democracy and freedom,” Ms Wong said.

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