Hong Kong battles over the memory of June 4, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre

Chow Hang-tung at the Victoria Park in 2019. Photo from Chow's Club on Facebook

Hong Kong Human rights lawyer Chow Hang-tung, 39, along with five of her supporters, were arrested and imprisoned on May 28, 2024, for publishing seditious posts on social media that allegedly incited hatred against both Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments. The arrests marked the first application of the newly enacted domestic security law, dubbed Article 23

Chow was the vice-chair of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HK Alliance), the host behind the annual candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown. The vigil was held annually between 1990–2019. She has been detained since September 2021 and was later sentenced to 22 months in jail after she was convicted of inciting and taking part in an unlawful assembly at the June 4 vigil in 2020 and organizing the vigil in 2021. Along with Albert Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan, Chow is awaiting a pending subversion trial under the Beijing-enacted National Security Law (NSL) with the date to be determined. The maximum penalty for the charge is life imprisonment.

Since 2020, the annual June 4 candlelight vigil has been banned in Hong Kong, citing pandemic restrictions. In 2022 and 2023, when individuals spontaneously commemorated the date near Victoria Park, they were arrested or taken away by the police. 

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Crackdown on the pro-democracy student movement on June 4, 1989. The student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing addressing the woes of widespread corruptions and privatization of collective properties in the name of market liberalization took place on April 15, 1989, and lasted till June 4, when they were shut down by a bloodily military crackdown at the center of Beijing.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, Chris Tang, said posts on Chow Hang-tung's club on Facebook were using an “upcoming sensitive date” to incite hatred. However, when asked if the sensitive date is June 4, he refused to answer.

Chow Hang-tung’s Club

What's so seditious in the posts published on Chow Hang-tung’s club Facebook page? Many pointed to a post published on April 1 2024, which invited people to share their stories related to June 4 so that she could present them as testimony during her subversion trial (the post is written in both Chinese and English):

控方目前說要依賴的「證據」裏,包括了自1989年以來支聯會及友好團體出版過的單張、刊物,以及燭光集會的錄影等。…他們要說這30多年來發生過的事情都是我們的罪證,那這30多年來的參與者就都可以是我們的證人。…如果你 #曾是過去30多年來點點燭光的其中一人,不管是在台上還是台下,場內還是場外,本地還是海外,我都 誠邀你 在這場審訊中留下你的證詞,訴說你的經歷,和那段經歷的意義。

The evidence that the prosecution currently intends to rely on includes leaflets and publications issued by the Alliance and other organizations since 1989, as well as video recordings of candlelight vigils… If they claim that everything that has happened over the past thirty years is evidence against us, then all participants in the past thirty years can be our witnesses….if you have been one of the candlelight bearers in the past thirty years, whether on stage or off, inside or outside the venue, locally or overseas, I sincerely invite you to leave your testimony in this trial…

The Facebook page tagged the call “A memory battle against the rewriting of memories” #記憶和改寫記憶的抗爭, and Chow started presenting her own testimony/memories about the June 4 commemoration beginning April 30, 2024 — the date marks a 35-day countdown for the 35th anniversary of June 4 crackdowns.

On May 10, she was placed in solitary confinement in prison. However, her written June 4 memories continued until the six were arrested on May 28. 

Adding two other arrests on May 29 and June 3, thus far, there are currently eight arrestees affiliated with Chow's facebook page, including Medina Chow, Chow's mother; Lau Ka-yee and Kwan Chun-pong, former standing committee members of HK Alliance; Chan Kim-Kam, a former district councilor; and Lee Ying-chi, a dentist and a member of the League of Social Democrats.

The Queen of Water and Rice

Chow is one of the rare remaining activists who insists on speaking out in Hong Kong even though she remains jailed in prison. Her forthright acts are backed by her understanding of the nature of political prosecution, as she explained on her club's Facebook page (in both Chinese and English)


“…the “criminal acts” we are accused of are inherently public, involving the participation of many, it is not about the defendant's private affairs. The role of the prosecution is not to uncover the truth but to suppress it—selectively extracting and burying public records that are already in the sunlight, to construct a narrative of crime and leave an authoritative record in the courtroom. Therefore, what is most “advantageous” for us is not to play along with the game of rewriting history by a few, controlled by the prosecution, but to return the power of writing history to everyone, allowing all facts to be seen. In this case, regarding the events of June Fourth, it's the prosecution, not us, who wants to conceal and trivialize matters!”

But reprisal often follows. She has been frequently placed in solitary confinement in prison. For example, after she was awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in December 2023, she was placed in solitary confinement for 18 days, according to a post on Chow Hang-tung’s club. 

According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners, solitary confinement shall only be applied as a last resort with an independent review. In 2011, Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez suggested prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be banned as scientific studies have established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.

She took the comeback lightly by giving herself the nickname “Queen of Water and Rice” (水飯女皇) as prisoners are only provided with water and rice in solitary confinement.

This time, the reprisal has extended to her dear mother and friends. The new domestic security law allows for pre-charge detention of up to 16 days, and suspects’ access to lawyers may be restricted. The penalty of sedition is up to seven years in prison, or 10 if they colluded with an “external force.” 

Weaponizing the law to silent critics

Many human rights organizations, including the London-based Hong Kong Watch and Human Rights in China, have slammed the arrests. Amnesty International’s China director Sarah Brooks described the arrests a “shameful attempt” at suppressing peaceful commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown and condemned the Hong Kong government for weaponizing Article 23 to silence critique:

Despite warnings from UN human rights experts that the law is inconsistent with international human rights laws and standards, the Hong Kong government insists on weaponizing it to silence critique…Chow Hang-tung and others in Hong Kong arrested simply for exercising the right to freedom of expression should be immediately and unconditionally released, and the Hong Kong police must refrain from suppressing other peaceful commemorations of the 1989 tragedy. Remembering the Tiananmen crackdown is not and never shall be a crime.

Yet, ironically, the arrests have reminded the world of the upcoming 35th anniversary of the June 4 crackdowns.

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