Hong Kong advocacy organization condemns China's refusal to allow commemoration of Tiananmen Square protests

Chinese officers patrolling Tiananmen Square May 2013 China  Credit Alexandre Kuma via Flickr CC BY NC SA 20 CNA Officers patrol Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 2013./ Alexandre Kuma via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

An organization aiming to support the democratic movement and religious freedom in Hong Kong spoke out on Thursday against China’s continued refusal to allow Hong Kongers to hold a candlelight vigil on the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. 

During the 1989 clash between protestors and Chinese troops, tanks rolled into Beijing’s main city square and military forces opened fire on university students and other citizens calling for democratic reforms. According to one account, as many as 10,000 people died. 

“China’s Communist Party cannot tolerate the truth of its actions in 1989 being recognized anywhere. Today, Hong Kong’s people can be unjustly jailed, just like their compatriots on the mainland, for refusing to deny history,” the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong said in a June 3 statement. 

“The world’s democracies must respond as if Hong Kong is the front line of China’s assault on freedom around the world – because it is.”

In China, people have not been allowed to hold official commemorations of the “June 4th incident” in Tiananmen, but Hong Kong has long held annual vigils to commemorate its victims. 

However, 2021 marks the second year in a row that authorities have forbidden a commemoration of Tiananmen in Hong Kong, ostensibly because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

Amid Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, this vigil became a flashpoint; thousands of protesters defied police in 2020 to take part in the memorial, even after police gave orders forbidding large gatherings. Bishop Joseph Ha, an auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, presided over a June 4 memorial vigil Mass in 2020.

With the July 2020 passage of “national security laws,” the Chinese government seized more power to suppress pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which it sees as a direct challenge to its power.

CFHK, launched during spring 2021, advocates for “political and economic consequences for China’s failure to keep its promises regarding Hong Kong’s freedoms,” as well as for “freedom of expression” on the island territory. 

Ellen Bork, a journalist and veteran of the U.S. Senate and State Department who serves as president of CFHK, told CNA that China’s continued crackdowns on religious freedom in Hong Kong is part of a larger pattern for which China ought to be held accountable. 

“Citizens and the media should know that the repression in Hong Kong is part and parcel of the Communist Party’s escalating repression throughout China – which includes intense persecution of religious communities, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists,” she told CNA. 

Bork said one of the organization’s immediate goals is supporting the nominations of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she said could help to build pressure from the international community on China. 

Martin Lee Chu-ming, 82, a Catholic lawyer who founded Hong Kong’s Democratic Party in 1994, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in February. Chinese state media have roundly dismissed the nomination as a “political stunt.”

“A Nobel Peace Prize to the movement's imprisoned leaders...would create pressure for Beijing to step back on its repression in Hong Kong and elsewhere,” Bork said. 

In addition, Bork said her organization intends to lobby against China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Beijing last hosted the Olympics in 2008. 

“[China’s General Secretary] Xi Jinping will use the 2022 Winter Olympic games to bolster the Party’s legitimacy at home and abroad,” Bork said.

“The Olympics should be relocated, and if necessary delayed – and Rep. Jim McGovern [D-MA] has made a strong case for this. At a minimum, the U.S. should coordinate with its allies in advance of the games to achieve the release of political prisoners throughout China.” 

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In addition to its actions in Hong Kong, China has garnered intense criticism for its treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group in the autonomous eastern region of Xinjiang. China has repeatedly conflated the Uyghurs’ culture and religious activities with extremism and separatism, and has detained at least 1 million of them in “reeducation camps” where they are subject to torture. 

Recent reporting from the New York Times chronicles dozens of allegations from Uyghur women who say they were pressured by officials to have abortions, be sterilized, or accept contraception. 

Hosting the Olympics is an honor, and “should not be used by an authoritarian regime to legitimize itself,” Bork said. 

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. Hong Kongers have, historically, largely enjoyed freedom of worship and evangelization, while in mainland China, there is a long history of persecution for Christians who run afoul of the government.

Millions of citizens of Hong Kong, including many Catholics, have in recent years participated in large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which came to a head during summer 2019. Beijing has in recent years tightened control over the island territory and cracked down on dissent.

During August 2020, several prominent democracy activists were arrested and charged, including Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old Catholic democracy activist. Chow has been outspoken in her support for civil rights in the former British colony.

Also among those arrested in August was Jimmy Lai, a Catholic media executive who has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for the past 30 years. A band of nearly 200 police officers arrested Lai Aug. 10, along with at least nine others connected to Apple Daily, the newspaper Lai founded in 1995.

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Lai has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for over 30 years and has said that his Catholic faith is a major motivating factor in his pro-democracy advocacy. He has now been sentenced to serve 20 months in prison. 

Last month, Pope Francis appointed Fr. Stephen Chow Sau-yan, as Bishop of Hong Kong, after a vacancy of more than two years.

The bishop-elect said at a press conference May 18 that whether or not he attends a public June 4 vigil “depends on the legal requirements.”

“Sometimes in the past, I would go and really commemorate in the public arena, but there were times that I couldn’t go, so I prayed,” he said.

“I pray for China. I pray for all those who have passed in 1989.”

The Diocese of Hong Kong’s Justice and Peace Commission has announced that the churches will each offer a Mass for the Dead on the night of June 4.