Hong Kong officials have launched an investigation into the city’s Tiananmen Square museum, just days before the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, after the operator was accused of not having a licence for the premises.
Tuesday’s move came as the organisers of the annual candlelight vigil on June 4 said they would not move the ceremony online, after a public gathering was banned for the second year running.
Officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department visited the memorial site, which was set up by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China in 2014, in Mong Kok on Tuesday afternoon to conduct an investigation after the group was accused of lacking an operating licence.
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The department said according to the Places of Public Entertainment Ordinance, under which the licence would be granted, a place of public entertainment referred to any entertainment site the public could access, whether it was free of charge or not, adding those activities that required a licence included exhibitions and performances.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, the alliance’s secretary, confirmed the incident to the Post, and said the museum would open as usual on Wednesday, but the group would discuss the implications of the investigation.
Separately, a tracking poll this year seems to show signs of a shift in Hongkongers’ stance towards the June 4 crackdown, with support growing for how Beijing handled an incident in which hundreds of students were killed.
Some 42 per cent of the 1,004 respondents believed protesters had done the “right thing” in 1989, a drop of 11 percentage points from last year’s poll and the lowest since 2002, when only 38 per cent of people believed the students were right.
Some 22 per cent thought the students were wrong, up from 20 per cent a year ago and also the highest since 2017, according to the poll released on Tuesday, conducted from May 17 to 21 by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Centre
While some 54 per cent of the people still said the central government’s handling of the incident was wrong, it was a 12 percentage points drop from a year ago – also the lowest since 2002 when it reported that 53 per cent of people believed the way it was handled was wrong.
About 19 per cent supported the handling of the incident – up four percentage points from a year ago and also a record high since 1993.
Twenty-eight per cent of the respondents said the alliance should be disbanded, up from 24 per cent last year and also a record high since 1993. Thirty-eight per cent thought otherwise, down from 43 per cent last year and also the lowest rating since 1998.
“We can understand that some people may have a sense of helplessness under the prevailing political sentiment. But we will continue our work,” Tsoi said.
“We are facing huge pressure. But it is not the end of the world. Maybe what we need to do now is to consolidate our strength, instead of having a head-on confrontation [with the authorities]. We trust that Hong Kong people are not giving up June 4 so easily.”
A ceremony was held online last year, when the alliance called on people to take part virtually on June 4, while organisers lit candles at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.
Tsoi said the group had taken “the legal risks that the citizens may have to bear into account”, when making a different decision this time around.
“We will not even ask people to turn on their lights at a specific time on Friday, but only call on them to commemorate the crackdown with their own ways at a time of their choice,” he said.
This year’s commemoration of the events of 1989 will be the first since the imposition of the Beijing-decreed national security law last June, which bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in Hong Kong.
Police earlier banned the annual gathering on the grounds of public health amid the coronavirus pandemic, but stopped short of outlawing it under the new legislation, despite accusations from pro-establishment figures that the alliance’s goal of “ending one-party dictatorship” in China was subversive.
Tsoi said moving the ceremony online did not essentially guarantee that those taking part would be spared from legal consequences.
He pointed to last month’s jailing of opposition activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and three others, for between four and 10 months, for knowingly taking part in the unauthorised vigil in 2020.
“If some residents who hope to commemorate the crackdown on streets watch the live broadcast of the alliance’s online ceremony together, will the police accuse them of sharing a ‘common purpose’ and arrest them for unauthorised assembly?” Tsoi said.
The law defines a public procession as one organised for a common purpose which takes place in, to, or from a public place.
Instead, Tsoi said the alliance would only broadcast clips on Friday featuring its statement, and speeches by the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of parents who lost children in the Beijing crackdown 32 years ago.
In the absence of an online ceremony, Tsoi said there would unlikely be any occasion for the alliance to chant slogans, but he said the alliance would not give up its founding operational aims, which include the release of dissidents on the mainland, vindication of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, accountability for the crackdown, and building a democratic China.
Speaking to the Post hours before the investigation was launched, Tsoi said he expected scores of Hongkongers to visit the recently reopened museum on Friday night to pay tribute to the dead, saying some 500 people had already made reservations for a visit in the coming days.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a legal academic at the University of Hong Kong, said it was hard to determine whether a group of people watching the live broadcast of the online ceremony in a public area would constitute an offence.
“I cannot say it is illegal, but it will also be unfair for me to say it is free of risk,” he said, pointing to the 18-month prison sentence handed down to those who took part in a peaceful, but unauthorised, assembly.
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