It’s much more than a candlelight vigil. In Hong Kong, commemorating victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre is a treasured act of resistance. There is no other place on Chinese soil where a mass remembrance of the tragedy is remotely possible.
But now, that right is being stripped away.
As of this year, anyone publicly lighting a candle in public in Hong Kong to recall the massacare on June 4, 1989, in Beijing — a turning point in China’s history in which a movement for greater freedoms was crushed — faces up to five years in prison.
This is just the latest endeavor by China’s Communist Party (and the Hong Kong government, obsequious to Beijing) to pick apart the coastal territory’s autonomy, a concept called “One Country, Two Systems," that is rapidly eroding.
Louisa Lim is a Hong Kong native and author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.” She spoke to The World’s Patrick Winn about Beijing’s latest clampdown against Hong Kong.
Patrick Winn: Louisa, you’ve written a lot about Beijing’s efforts to erase history. Why do they do this? How does it create a future they want to see?
Louisa Lim: The Communist Party wants everyone to share an approved version of its history. It wants only one monolithic story of China to exist. What we’re seeing now is attempts to extend that singular narrative into Hong Kong — a place where there’s always been academic freedom, where people have been allowed to question historical narratives. Beijing is succeeding in rewriting history textbooks. It’s succeeding in imposing its narrative — sort of officially — on Hong Kong. But Hong Kongers have shown they’re not just rolling over and swallowing.
What has been the significance of people in Hong Kong holding vigils to remember Tiananmen Square? What does it mean to do that on Chinese soil?
It’s an example of the power of public memory writ large. People gather on these football fields and hold candles. It’s a sea of light as far as you can see. It stands as a rebuke against the Chinese government’s rewriting of history. And it’s a reminder that Hong Kong people continue to publicly remember what happened. On a local level, it’s also important because, for many Hong Kongers, this is their introduction to political activism. Many young Hong Kongers have grown up attending the vigil as children. It’s really inculcated a powerful sense of collective identity among them.
Well, how seriously do you take the Hong Kong government’s threats against anyone holding a vigil on June 4?
This time we’re seeing really specific warnings. That if you’re wearing black clothing, if you’re holding a candle, if you’re in or around Victoria Park on June 4, you could be found guilty of illegal assembly. Even publicizing the vigil could get you a sentence of one year. And I think these are threats that the government is intending to carry out.
Louisa, how fast has Beijing moved to clamp down on Hong Kong’s autonomy?
The speed of Beijing’s clampdown in Hong Kong has been astonishing. To go from 180,000 people at that vigil two years ago — then to the fact that even holding a candle and wearing black clothes in the street by the park could earn you five years in prison? I mean, that’s just an astonishing clampdown on rights. And one that is almost incomprehensible for Hong Kongers to come to grips with.
Is it too dramatic to say that this clampdown signals Hong Kong’s autonomy is in its last days?
I think Hong Kong’s autonomy has been in its last days for a long time. The situation in Hong Kong is really very parlous at the moment. In fact, it’s possibly even more difficult than the situation in China, because dissidents in China have long been able to navigate those boundaries. The red lines are really quite clear. In Hong Kong, the red lines are moving all the time. It’s incredibly hard to know where those red lines are. So, I think the unpredictability of the environment makes it very difficult to operate. And if you’re looking at autonomy, the way the legal system has been used to suppress freedoms shows it is not behaving in an autonomous fashion at all.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.