Hong Kong police have formally banned this week’s vigil for the Tiananmen Square massacre, citing Covid-19 measures.
The move had been expected, especially after the Hong Kong government extended its ban on public gatherings in groups larger than eight, but the announcement confirms that for the first time since the Chinese military killed untold numbers of protesters on 4 June 1989, there will be no commemorative event.
The annual event – a sombre and peaceful affair attended by tens of thousands – is also often a vehicle for other causes. Attenders last year drew awareness to a proposed extradition bill that would draw a million people to the streets in protest just a few days later, and spark months of demonstrations.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s police force wrote to organisers of the vigil to object to it taking place, citing the social distancing measures that were due to expire on Tuesday.
It said public assemblies were a “high-risk activity” owing to the large crowds that gather.
“Police believe the event will not only increase participants’ chances of contracting the virus, but also threaten citizens’ lives and health, thus endangering public safety and affecting the rights of others,” police said.
The decision follows a vote by China’s ceremonial parliament to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and enact national security legislation for the semi-autonomous territory. Democracy activists and many legal experts worry that the law could curtail free speech and opposition political activities.
Lee Cheuk-yan, an organiser of the vigil and chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, expressed disappointment and urged people to light candles individually and observe a moment of silence.
Amnesty International said authorities should facilitate a socially distanced vigil rather than ban it.
“Covid-19 must not be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, the group’s deputy director for east and south-east Asia. “With this ban, and a disastrous national security law looming, it is not clear if Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigil will ever be allowed to take place again.”
Hong Kong has reported five local infections of the coronavirus in the last two days, ending a nearly two-week streak of no new cases apart from those brought in from abroad.
Hong Kong also reported its first locally transmitted case of the virus in more than two weeks. Numerous restrictions, including on swimming pools and religious gatherings, were recently lifted, prompting accusations that the ban on gatherings was only staying in place to prevent protests, and the vigil.
Associated Press contributed to this report