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People In Hong Kong Defy Police Ban, Gather To Commemorate Tiananmen Victims

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thirty-one years ago today, June 4, 1989, students and civilians gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They were protesting for democratic and economic reforms. But China's military cracked down on the demonstrators aggressively and violently. Talking about that night is forbidden in China, but not so in Hong Kong, where activists held an annual rally to commemorate the victims. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: For the first time in 31 years, these annual shouts of vindicate June 4 and justice will prevail were not supposed to ring out in Hong Kong's Victoria Park. Police had denied organizers permission to congregate, citing the coronavirus. A few thousand congregated anyways in defiance of the ban.

Instead of permitting a rally, Hong Kong passed a national anthem bill today. It criminalizes making fun of China's national anthem, a popular protest method, with up to three years prison time and hefty fines. Activists see the ban on this year's Tiananmen vigil as another sign of Beijing's control over Hong Kong.

ZHOU FENGSUO: It's a direct result of China taking a wrong path after Tiananmen massacre.

FENG: Zhou Fengsuo now lives in New Jersey. But in 1989, he was one of the main student leaders during the Tiananmen protests. He says the current unraveling of Hong Kong's autonomy has its roots in that summer of 1989, when the Communist Party of China decided to keep their hold on power through violent means rather than embrace political reforms.

ZHOU: With this massacre and the CCP in power, there's no guarantee. There's no protection for Hong Kong's freedom.

FENG: For Hong Kongers, the protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square felt central to achieving freedoms in Hong Kong. Wang Chaohua was another student leader during 1989. She recalls how visiting Hong Kong students in Beijing pledged their support. They believed that winning democratic rights in Beijing could mean democracy for the then-British colony of Hong Kong as well.

WANG CHAOHUA: We thought we had better democracy in the mainland than in Hong Kong. Hong Kong hadn't had much, and it was a colony.

FENG: She said protesters thought mainland China was more democratic than Hong Kong. Hong Kong was still a British colony whose future was, at that moment, in flux. Legal experts from mainland China and Hong Kong were trying to agree on the conditions under which China would govern Hong Kong. But the Tiananmen protests suspended drafting of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini constitution. Two drafters who expressed support for the protests were kicked off the committee. Two others resigned. And Beijing took control of the writing process, adding language to two articles in the Basic Law criminalizing subversion and allowing Beijing to apply its laws in Hong Kong on national security grounds, provisions it cites today as it seeks to impose a national security law.

Wang Chaohua no longer has democratic ambitions for Hong Kong, but she is still optimistic.

WANG: You can see people are turning their site to Taiwan to see the hope there. It's not a cultural question that the Chinese people are unfit for democracy. Look at Taiwan.

FENG: Since 1989, Taiwan has gone from martial law to a full-blown electoral democracy. It's a path that those who survived Tiananmen thought would happen on the mainland in China, a path they hope is still possible. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.