(CNN) — An annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre will not take place in Hong Kong this year, after police refused organizers permission to hold a mass gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.
On June 4, 1989 Chinese troops cracked down on pro-democracy protesters around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. No official death toll has ever been released, but rights groups estimate hundreds, if not thousands were killed.
The massacre made headlines around the world — with iconic images such as the “Tank Man” bravely defying the troops on the square — but it particularly resonated in Hong Kong, which was then eight years away from being handed over from British to Chinese control.
Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil where major mass commemorations are held for the event. Candlelit vigils have been held in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park every year since 1990, and recent events have attracted tens of thousands of participants.
Police would not give permission for this year’s rally to go ahead, however, citing coronavirus restrictions on gatherings of more than eight people, according to an official letter shared with CNN.
While the pandemic was given as the reason for the rally, a proposed national security bill was already looming over the anniversary.
The law, which will be imposed upon the city by Beijing in coming weeks, criminalizes secession, sedition and subversion, and could see the banning of groups such as that which organizes the annual Tiananmen rally, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.
“Hong Kong Alliance may perhaps be banned from operating because of its long-term fight to end the one-party dictatorship,” the group said in a statement Sunday, referring to China’s ruling Communist Party. “It may also be characterized as a subversive organization. Our capital and property may also be frozen and confiscated. If the person in charge violates the National Security Law he or she can also be charged with the ‘crime of subverting state power’.”
The Alliance had already called on people to mark this year’s anniversary by lighting candles at home and holding smaller-scale gatherings that will not contravene coronavirus restrictions, an invitation it extended globally.
“Citizens in places where public actions are impossible may stay home to fast for one day, in commemoration of the students and civilians shot dead by the military forces in the June 4th massacre, and all those who have died in the global pandemic consequential to the Communist Party’s concealment and blockade of information,” the group said in a statement.
“Citizens in places where public actions are possible may light candles at 8 p.m. outside Chinese agencies or in any other appropriate public venues, and observe a minute of silence at 8:09 p.m., to both commemorate the death and to demand accountability.”
With coronavirus restrictions extended through June 4, the likelihood the annual rally would be banned was great. It remains to be seen, however, next year, when the pandemic has hopefully passed, whether national security laws will prevent any commemoration being held at all.