For 33 years, Beijing has done everything possible to erase Tiananmen from collective memory. History textbooks do not mention it. Online discussions on this subject are systematically censored.

On June 4, 1989, the communist regime sent tanks and troops to quell peaceful protesters who had for weeks occupied iconic Tiananmen Square demanding political change and an end to systemic corruption.

The crushing of the movement had caused hundreds of deaths, more than a thousand according to some estimates.

On Saturday, Chinese authorities installed facial recognition devices in the streets leading to the square. The police, deployed in large numbers, carried out finicky identity checks.

In China, evoking the events of 1989 has always been taboo. Hong Kong was an exception until 2020, when Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on the semi-autonomous region designed to stifle dissent after massive pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Since then, the local authorities have been trying to erase all traces of the memory of Tiananmen.

– Illegal vigil –

Hong Kong police have warned that participating in an “unauthorized assembly” is punishable by up to five years in prison. This warning applies in particular to Victoria Park, where a candlelight vigil once brought together tens of thousands of people on June 4.

Much of this park was closed as of Friday evening, and many officers were patrolling the site Saturday morning.

In the busy commercial district of Causeway Bay, located nearby, an artist who had carved a potato into the shape of a candle with a lighter was arrested on Friday evening by a dozen officers, noted an AFP journalist. . Police later said they had arrested a 31-year-old woman for “disorderly conduct in a public place”.

Vigils had already been banned in 2020 and 2021 in the name of the fight against Covid-19. Last year, the Hong Kong Alliance, which organized them, was dissolved, its June 4 Museum was closed and its leaders arrested.

– Fasting in prison –

Former Alliance leader Lee Cheuk-yan announced he would fast, light a match and sing memorial songs on Saturday in his prison cell.

“I believe Hong Kong people will join me in marking June 4 in sincerity, using their own means to express their commitment to democracy,” Lee wrote in a letter posted online.

Another former member of the Alliance, Leung Kam-wai, explained to AFP that the authorities deliberately incite self-censorship by remaining vague on what is legal or not.

“I hope those who still want to commemorate will find their own way to do so,” said Mr. Leung, saying that “it doesn’t have to happen in the park” and “the most important thing is that we continue to commemorate”.

This lack of clarity of the red lines has prompted six Hong Kong universities in recent months to unbolt Tiananmen memorials erected on their campuses.

And one of the last ways Hong Kongers remember Tiananmen, the annual Catholic masses, were canceled this year, again for fear of prosecution.

Commemorating Tiananmen in public is now only legal overseas. Dissidents in exile have created their own museums in the United States. And activists plan to resurrect in Taiwan the “Pillar of Shame”, one of the sculptures recently unbolted in Hong Kong.

On Twitter, which is blocked in China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid tribute to the “brave protesters” who “peacefully demanded democracy in Tiananmen Square” 33 years ago.

“Despite the removal of memorials and attempts to erase history, we honor their memory by promoting respect for human rights wherever they are threatened,” he wrote.

Outside China, vigils are planned for Saturday in several countries. Amnesty International is coordinating around 20 of them “to seek justice and as a sign of solidarity with Hong Kong”.