China may be in a Tiananmen blackout, but Hong Kong is preparing for massive memorial crowds

Rain was no deterrent for Hong Kongers marking last year’s Tiananmen Square anniversary.
Rain was no deterrent for Hong Kongers marking last year’s Tiananmen Square anniversary.
Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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Deciphering how the “one country, two systems” relationship between mainland China and the financial hub of Hong Kong works can be difficult at the best of times, but the gulf between the two is glaringly apparent ahead of the 25th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests.

Writing about or remembering the June 4, 1989 crackdown, which is believed to have killed hundreds of students in Beijing, is utterly forbidden in mainland China. This year authorities are censoring social media and blocking Google and many foreign news websites, not to mention rounding up dozens of would-be commemorators for offenses as banal as discussing the event in a private home.

Meanwhile, a mere subway ride from the mainland, Hong Kong is gearing up for its annual candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary, which is expected to attract more than 150,000 people. Local universities are sponsoring exhibitions and talks by witnesses and journalists (including the “Tank Guy” photographer). The Foreign Correspondents Club is screening a documentary featuring interviews with witnesses and journalists who covered the protests.

On a more personal scale, hundreds of groups of Hong Kong families and friends are expected to gather in their homes on the evening of June 4 to commemorate the event. That will include many people from mainland China, tens of thousands of whom have obtained Hong Kong residency since 1989. At the candlelight event, “in recent years we have noticed more people from mainland China,” said Richard Tsoi, the vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.

When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 after decades of British rule, Chinese officials pledged to uphold the economic and political systems in place, including free speech and elections. But in recent years, many Hong Kong residents believe those democratic ideals have been squeezed by mainland officials, who are have placed pro-mainland leaders in government positions and clamped down on freedom of the press.

The Tiananmen Square anniversary, though, is such an important event for Hong Kong that stifling protests would backfire, participants and organizers say. On Sunday, thousand of people marched through central Hong Kong, some carrying mock coffins and tanks to commemorate the event:

His shirt says “Citizen against orders.”
His shirt says “Citizen against orders.”
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

In April, Hong Kong opened its Tiananmen Square memorial museum. Most Chinese “have a very blurred remembrance that something happened on June 4 – especially if they are young,” the museum’s organizer told Time Out Hong Kong.

That’s not to say, though, that information flows free in Hong Kong about the protests. The website for the Hong Kong Democratic Alliance and the June 4 museum have both been offline in recent days, due, the sites owners believe, to targeted denial of service attacks that has sent huge amounts of crippling traffic to the websites. “It is a kind of attack, probably with the intention of making the whole website not function in order to prevent people from getting information,” Tsoi said., which tracks web censorship in China, said it could not determine the reason behind the websites’ outage, but that it was “likely these sites have been attacked and brought down on purpose.”