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After authorities banned an annual vigil to commemorate the victims of China's deadly Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong activists at home and abroad are seeking ways to keep the tradition alive.
For decades, tens of thousands have gathered annually on June 4 in Hong Kong's Victoria Park, lighting candles and singing songs to remember the victims of the bloody 1989 massacre on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
But the tradition is now in danger of disappearing in Hong Kong.
Last week, Hong Kong police banned the annual vigil from taking place, citing pandemic-related prevention measures. This marks the second year in a row that the event can't take place in the city.
Hong Kong's Security Bureau warned on May 28 that anyone who takes part in any event related to the Tiananmen vigil could be sentenced for up to five years in jail and anyone who promotes the event could be imprisoned for up to a year.
Around the same time, several key figures who have been organizing the vigil for decades were sentenced to more than a year in jail for allegedly participating in an "unauthorized assembly" in 2019.
Meanwhile, a museum dedicated to the event suddenly closed Wednesday, just two days before Friday's anniversary, after authorities investigated it for lacking the necessary licenses to hold a public exhibition.
In the eyes of some exiled Hong Kong activists, the series of moves targeting the Tiananmen commemoration and related events reflects the deterioration of the state of freedom in the Chinese special administrative region.
"Beijing is trying to form a more authoritarian government and society in Hong Kong," said Nathan Law, a Hong Kong activist currently living in exile in the UK.
Law is one of the activists facing charges for participating in last year's vigil, which was viewed as an unauthorized assembly by the police.
Following the implementation of the national security law and the ongoing repression of civil liberties, he said activists are becoming more aware that the Hong Kong administration is becoming more similar to the one in the mainland.
"Hong Kong people have been through our bloody battle and even though the scenes were not as shocking as the ones we witnessed in 1989, we have been seeing similar degrees of suppression and the scope of impact is larger than it," Law said. "We are facing the same regime with the same degree of brutality and obsession of retaining their power."
Hong Kong is now facing a Chinese government that is more powerful than the one they dealt with 32 years ago, said the Tiananmen student leaders who experienced the brutality in 1989 and were later forced to go into exile. It's because Beijing is establishing an authoritarian regime powered by modern technologies.
"Hong Kong's deterioration happened very fast, and they have lost a lot of freedom over the last few years," said Zhou Fengsuo, a Tiananmen student leader who now lives in the United States. "Activists who decide to stay in Hong Kong will likely have to face more difficult situations, and those who have gone into exile need to try their best to lay down foundations in different countries."
The Tiananmen Square massacre and the events in Hong Kong since 2019 show that the Chinese government will do anything to protect its authority while cracking down on those viewed as a threat to its power to rule, activists say.
"The things I learned by reading material about June 4 is that the CCP can't tolerate anyone challenging its legitimacy or its power," said Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong activist living in Germany.
The rapid deterioration in the state of rights and freedom in Hong Kong and Macau, which also banned the Tiananmen vigil over concerns of subversion and pandemic, shows that the distinctions between the two cities and mainland China are becoming less obvious.
"Banning the vigils fits with the claim many are making that 'One Country, Two Systems' has now become 'One Country, One System,' with fewer and fewer political markers of difference between the two former colonies and [mainland China]," said Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California in Irvine.
As spaces to voice dissent and organize demonstrations continue to shrink in Hong Kong, many think the role of the diaspora community has become more important than before to continue the traditions such as commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre.
"As more and more people have to go into exile or decide to emigrate to other countries, I think there will be a lot of Hong Konger communities around the world and how we preserve the identity of Hong Konger overseas is very important," Kwong said. "We have to do that in order to have a Hong Kong that we can recognize."
Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo said it will be important for activists abroad to maintain the connection with activists who stay in Hong Kong and find ways to support the "prisoners of conscience" in the city.
"As many prominent figures in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement are either imprisoned or in exile, no one knows if any form of resistance can still be initiated within Hong Kong," he said. "While I have faith that Hong Kong people can find new ways to resist Beijing's encroachment, they will need a lot of courage to deal with the enormous challenges coming their way."
As for activists in exile or abroad, Zhou thinks it will be important for them to develop their own expertise while dedicating themselves to advocacy work related to Hong Kong, since it is hard to predict if they can survive by simply being full-time activists abroad.
"From our experience, it's always better if these young activists can develop their own expertise, so they have a more sustainable way to be engaged in advocacy works related to Hong Kong," Zhou said. "They may consider the importance of sustaining themselves in the long run."
As Hong Kong will certainly not see thousands of people lighting up candles in Victoria Park on the night of June 4, Zhou said activists across the world were planning to hold multiple vigils to "continue the candlelights from Hong Kong."
"It is remarkable for Hong Kong to maintain this tradition for 32 years, and we will try to continue the candlelights from Victoria Park around the world," Zhou said.