June 21st, 2024

As Hong Kong cracks down, Canadian Tiananmen Square vigils keep flame burning

By Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press on June 4, 2024.

Activists in Canada say Hong Kong's crackdown on commemorations of the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square has injected new vigour and significance to vigils in overseas communities. Police officers stand guard in Causeway Bay area, on the 35th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown, in Hong Kong, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chan Long Hei

VANCOUVER – Activists in Canada say Hong Kong’s crackdown on commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre has injected new vigour and significance to vigils in diaspora communities.

The Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement says it had to shift its annual June 4 candlelight vigil from outside the Chinese consulate to David Lam Park downtown to accommodate more people in the past two years.

Society chairwoman Mabel Tung says the event will again take place at the park on the 35th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, when hundreds, if not thousands, were killed by Chinese troops.

Tung says younger protesters are motivated by the recent suppression of dissent in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Toronto and Vancouver did not respond to a request for comment.

Hong Kong was for decades the worldwide centre of June 4 commemorations, with crowds sometimes exceeding 100,000 at an annual vigil before organizers disbanded in 2021 as the government stamped out public displays of opposition.

Sensitivity toward mentioning or protesting about June 4 is high. Social media video shot in Hong Kong on Tuesday showed one elderly man being surrounded by police and taken away when he silently traced out the Chinese characters for eight, nine, six and four with his hand in the air ““ an apparent reference to the date.

Among the few visibly protesting have been foreign diplomats. Candles adorned the windows of the U.S. consulate, while the consuls general of Germany and the Netherlands joined a representative from the European Union office in Hong Kong to walk through Victoria Park, where the mass vigil used to be held.

Tung said younger protesters may not have direct memories of the massacre.

But she said some Hong Kongers who moved to Canada in recent years have been inspired to participate in June 4 vigils by the crackdown in their home city since 2014’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests. There were mass protests again in 2019 that triggered a new wave of suppression, including the introduction of a sweeping national security law.

“I briefly talked about it (with one attendee),” Tung said. “She just came a year ago. She said in Hong Kong she never went to any of the candlelight vigils in Victoria Park, but she started last year to come to our candlelight vigil.

“Her rationale is, because she couldn’t do it in Hong Kong now, she loved to do it to say to the Chinese Communist Party that ‘I still have my freedom here.'”

In Toronto, protesters are also planning a candlelight vigil and a march from the Chinese consulate to the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, wrapping up at the University of Toronto.

Activist Cherie Wong, who has lived in Canada and Hong Kong, was born after 1989, but said her parents took her to the Victoria Park vigil every year when she was growing up.

She said resistance and opposition to crackdowns in Hong Kong continue in subtle ways such as people turning on their cellphone lights to mimic candlelight, but overseas communities must play a crucial role and “be their voice.”

“I think of it as we’re standing on the shoulders of the activists who came before us,” Wong says.

“Since as long as I could remember, my family’s always spoke about Tiananmen students and the Chinese students who stood up demanding democratization in China as people who led the way despite being suppressed and violently beaten down.

“And I think that we carry that sentiment, and we carry their work and we stand on their shoulders to build on the Umbrella movement, to build on the 2016 activist movement, to build on what have happened in 2019.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

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