People attend a candlelit remembrance in Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, defying a ban against gathering as tensions seethed over a planned new security law. Tens of thousands of people across Hong Kong lit candles and chanted democracy slogans to commemorate China's deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. (Photo: AFP)
The insistence by Hong Kong’s Catholic community on holding Masses commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing speaks volumes about the significance of the date for the community and for Chinese Catholics, Christians and other believers.
Despite a ban on the traditional June 4 evening vigil that has been held in central Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for the past 30 years, thousands braved the threat of police retaliation to break through metal barriers and light candles in the park.
June 4, 1989, is the single blackest day in the history of post-Mao Zedong China and has become a symbol of the systematic, brutal repression that has been a hallmark of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
That repression has been visited on religion during the 70-year reign of the CCP. Like all communist parties, China’s is officially atheist. Under Mao, its first leader, things quickly became so bad that the Vatican cut off relations with Beijing in 1951, and it was not until 2018 when Pope Francis signed a provisional deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops — something that his two predecessors had also worked hard to get — that any formal relationship was renewed.
But it is clear that the deal has not stopped Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s campaign of repressing religion and sinicizing Christianity and other religions. While formally this means making them more Chinese, in practice it means making them more integrated with the CCP.
Hong Kong Catholics have long been wary of any moves by Beijing to take more control of the city and have been prominent — right to the top of the clergy, most notably in the shape of Hong Kong’s bishop emeritus and indefatigable freedom fighter Cardinal Joseph Zen — in taking part in protests against any moves by Beijing to tighten its grip on the city.
The events of 1989 and the latest bid by Beijing to take more control of Hong Kong are intertwined as they came while Beijing was thrashing out the details of the Basic Law that has been governing Hong Kong since 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework. After Tiananmen, the Chinese government toughened up the Basic Law and inserted Section 23, which dictated that the Hong Kong Legislative Council should implement security laws for the city.
The 1989 massacre frightened the people of Hong Kong. A million people marched in the city and gave both financial and physical support to the Beijing protesters, and the die was cast for a suspicious relationship with China’s rulers that continues to this day.
Now, finally, Beijing wants to take its iron fist out of the velvet glove with which it has ruled Hong Kong these past 23 years, making this year’s Tiananmen commemoration even more poignant and essential.
Catholics have already been prominent in addressing the demands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and police aggression during protests that started last June, while the territory’s diocese has expressed concern over the uncertainty of Beijing’s proposed new national security law for Hong Kong.
The diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission has previously raised concerns about the violent police response and described the Hong Kong government as “totalitarian” in its response to protesters. It backed the protesters’ five key demands, the key one of which is an investigation into police brutality. With a quote from the Bible, the group said: "Woe to those who turn judgment to wormwood and cast justice to the ground!" (Amos 5:7)
Cardinal Zen told Italian broadcaster Tg2 that there is no chance for dialogue with Beijing. “The Chinese government just wants to crush protests and eliminate all forms of democracy,” he said.
Bishop Joseph Ha said in a video message on May 15: “The fundamental problem is not solved — people will just continue to come out and protest," adding that Hong Kong’s administration had ignored the demand to appoint a committee to probe police violence against protesters.
The details of the new security law are likely to be unveiled in the coming weeks but Beijing has already said it will cover sedition, secession (independence movements), terrorism (Beijing considers the recent protests as terrorism) and foreign influence (likewise, Beijing claims that foreign power are behind the protests).
Many observers believe that speaking truth to power about the events of June 4, 1989, could fall well within the remit of the new law. Beijing has long taken a very dim view of the annual Hong Kong protest. Many wonder if it will be possible to hold one next year.
Still, history has shown that the world, including the peripheries of China in Hong Kong and Taiwan, has not forgotten what happened in Tiananmen Square. Vigil or no vigil, many in Hong Kong — where last night people were willing to defy authorities about commemorating June 4 — will keep the flame of freedom alive.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.