Thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park in June 2014 to mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. File picture: REUTERS
Thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park in June 2014 to mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. File picture: REUTERS

Hong Kong — Hong Kong police on Monday banned this year's  vigil marking the Tiananmen crackdown anniversary citing the coronavirus pandemic, the first time the gathering has been halted in three decades.

The candlelight vigil on June 4  usually attracts huge crowds and is the only place on Chinese soil where such a major commemoration of the anniversary is still allowed.

The gathering in 2019 was large and came just a week before seven months of pro-democracy protests and clashes exploded onto the city's streets, sparked initially by a plan to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.

Top, pro-democracy protesters gather at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 2 1989. Bottom, people visit Tiananmen Square on May 1 2019. Picture: AFP/CATHERINE HENRIETTE
Top, pro-democracy protesters gather at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 2 1989. Bottom, people visit Tiananmen Square on May 1 2019. Picture: AFP/CATHERINE HENRIETTE

But police rejected permission for this year's rally, saying it would “constitute a major threat to the life and health of the public”, according to a letter of objection to organisers.

Hong Kong has managed to keep the virus mostly in check, with just more than 1,000 infections and four deaths. Bars, restaurants, gyms and cinemas have largely reopened.

In the past two days five local infections were reported, breaking nearly two weeks of zero tallies.

Organisers accused police of using the Covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to ban the rally.

“I don't see why the government finds political rallies unacceptable while it gave green lights to resumption of schools and other services ranging from catering, karaoke to swimming pools,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chair of the Hong Kong Alliance which has organised every vigil since 1990.

The alliance called on residents to instead light a candle at 8pm on Thursday and observe one minute of silence wherever they can.

“If we are not allowed to light a candle at a rally, we will let the candles be lit across the city,” Lee said.

Lee also vowed that the alliance would continue to chant the “end one-party rule” slogan during the commemoration. Beijing's recently announced plans to impose a law criminalising acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference.

Beijing says the law — which will bypass Hong Kong's legislature — is needed to tackle “terrorism” and “separatism”.

Opponents fear it will bring mainland-style political oppression to a business hub guaranteed freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after its 1997 handover to China by Britain.

The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown occurred when China's leaders sent tanks and troops to quell student protesters calling for democracy and an end to corruption.

Estimates of those killed in the crackdown range from a few hundred to several thousand.

Three decades on, it remains one of the most sensitive subjects in mainland China and any mention of it is strictly censored.

But Hong Kong has kept the memory alive. The annual vigils swelled before the 1997 handover to China and have become charged in recent years as many Hong Kongers chafe under Beijing's rule.

This year's anniversary is likely to coincide with Hong Kong's pro-government stacked legislature voting for a law banning insults to China's national anthem.

AFP