Six years ago, I spent the evening of June 4, 2014 in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. Rain-heavy clouds had hovered over the city earlier in the day but then moved on without bursting; by the time I arrived at the park around dinnertime the night was clear, though muggy and hot, as is typical for a Hong Kong summer. The prospect of forsaking air-conditioned apartments and offices for the oppressive humid heat of the park didn’t deter people, who streamed onto the hard-surfaced soccer fields. As one pitch filled up the crowds spilled over to the next. Families and solo individuals and groups of friends milled around; eventually, as the starting time for the event grew closer, people found spots on the painted turf and settled in. Later, I would read that I was one person among a sea of perhaps as many as 180,000.
We were all there for Hong Kong’s June Fourth vigil, an annual public gathering to memorialize victims of the 1989 massacre in Beijing. Hong Kongers had held the vigil every year since 1990, even after the city transitioned from its status as a British colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region on July 1, 1997. Public commemoration of June Fourth—even discussing June Fourth—was impossible just over the border on the Chinese mainland, yet in Hong Kong the assemblies persisted, a communal expression of the freedoms its citizens still held under an arrangement known as “One Country, Two Systems.” Hong Kong was officially part of China, but Beijing would not impose the same restrictions it enforced on the mainland—on the press, on religion, on free expression—until fifty years after the handover, in 2047.
In fact, back on that stiflingly hot night in June 2014 Hong Kong had already started to feel the weight of pressure from Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing, who wanted to accelerate the timetable for fully integrating the SAR into the PRC. Every move from Beijing was met with resistance and reminders of that 2047 deadline, and the CCP seemed to grow impatient with Hong Kongers and their insistence on maintaining the “high degree of autonomy” they had been promised. Within months of the 2014 vigil I attended, an attempt to ensure that only candidates pre-approved by Beijing could stand for election as Hong Kong Chief Executive had resulted in massive protests, soon to become known as the Umbrella Movement and notable for the youth of many of its leaders.
Last year’s June Fourth vigil marking thirty years since the massacre drew a crowd of approximately the same size as the one I had attended five years earlier. Only days later, more than five times that number took to Hong Kong’s streets in a massive demonstration protesting a proposed bill that would permit extraditions to mainland China. The June 9 march was the start to a summer of protest, an extended display of Hong Kongers’ unwillingness to bend to Beijing’s will.
This year, COVID-19 provided the Hong Kong government with a convenient pretext to block the June Fourth vigil; on Monday police officially denied the event’s permit application, citing concerns over public health. But events in late May made it possible that this would not be a one-off interruption to the annual gathering: China’s National People’s Congress has voted to impose a “national security law” on Hong Kong, and once that law is written and goes into effect it will vastly increase Beijing’s control over the territory and its ability to exercise power in the name of protecting state security and maintaining national unity. The June Fourth vigil, which both commemorates those killed by that state in 1989 and also expresses Hong Kong’s distinct local identity, could easily become illegal in the future.
Vigil organizers asked people to mark the occasion by lighting a candle at home or meeting up in small groups instead, and throughout this week social media and news reports have lamented the likely end of the enormous gatherings of recent years. When I woke up early this morning and started scrolling through Twitter, I saw a number of posts I expected: photographs of empty soccer fields in Victoria Park, blocked off by waist-high metal fencing and signs reminding people to “Observe the prohibition on group gathering.”
But as the Michigan sky lightened outside while I drank my coffee and continued to refresh Twitter, I began to see an unexpected story unfold in real time: photos and videos of masked Hong Kongers overturning or pushing aside those barriers around the park and walking onto the hard-surfaced soccer pitches, lighting candles, displaying signs, chanting slogans. Even without a permit, the vigil was taking place—on a much smaller scale than in prior years, and with clumps of people spaced apart to maintain social distancing, but it was taking place nonetheless. While I saw reports of police presence nearby, officers didn’t storm into the park and arrest everyone in sight (though there were arrests at another gathering, in Mong Kok, where the police also used pepper spray on demonstrators). Thousands of people participated in the Victoria Park assembly, and more showed up at vigils elsewhere in the city. Hong Kong has once again stood firm against the winds of change coming down from Beijing.
Of course, my Twitter feed this morning did not only unfurl a story of commemoration and resistance halfway around the world. Other threads highlighted the past and present we struggle to acknowledge and resolve here in the United States: racism, inequality, violence, oppression. The New York Times saw fit to publish an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a U.S. Senator, with the headline, “Send in the Troops.” That it appeared on the anniversary of the very day the CCP did just that—to international outrage and condemnation—seemed an especially tone-deaf coincidence, but there’s no day when Cotton’s message would be appropriate. Many American lawmakers have condemned the violent moments in China’s past while ignoring our own. As Rui Zhong writes in a powerful essay at Foreign Policy,
Tiananmen in the American imagination is something fantastic and distant, deliberately placed far away and long ago. It is otherized in a collection of stories of crushed overseas rebellions that can’t happen at home. It is a black mark against the Chinese state alone, rather than a possibility in America itself. Only under a dictatorship could such things happen, we say, forgetting Ocoee, Opelousas, Tulsa, or Kent State.
Oppression and resistance. Violence and protest. Amnesia and commemoration. Indifference and compassion. Pessimism and optimism. I feel like on any given day the balance in our world shifts, see-sawing between darkness and light multiple times, and I’m never sure which end of the spectrum will dominate my thoughts when I finally click off my phone at night. I was prepared for today to weigh me down—and it has, but not as heavily as I had expected.
Thousands of people showed up at Victoria Park to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly. Thousands of people defied authority and bore witness to a dark day in history. Their presence spoke to the importance of free expression, of open debate, of engaging with and remembering the past, of education. This year’s vigil, though fragmented and many times smaller than the one I attended in 2014, struck me as even more powerful; unexpected and unlawful, it embodied the risks we should all be willing to take to fight for the society we want to live in.
The CCP is still intent on imposing its will on Hong Kong, and the day may arrive when that does come to pass. But it wasn’t today.