Tomorrow evening will bring the lights down on a long-held tradition in Hong Kong. For the first time in more than 30 years there won’t be an official candlelit vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the Chinese Communist party’s deadly crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (pictured). Hong Kong’s police refused permission earlier this week, citing coronavirus restrictions. This came as little surprise as the government extended the ban on public meetings of more than eight people a few weeks ago, though that has not stopped the commemoration’s organisers from crying foul.
But the cancellation of the mass gathering might prove to be a positive development for pro-democracy advocates. First, it spares any blushes. Protests have been sparsely attended so far this year because of fears of catching the virus and being caught by the police for breaching physical-distancing guidelines. Moreover, the annual vigil had become endangered long before the pandemic or the national security bill. Younger activists, born long after 1989, have been boycotting the peaceful event in recent years in favour of taking more forceful steps to highlight the city’s ongoing oppression by Beijing.
Second, there’s nothing like a police ban to inject some spark into an ageing anti-establishment demonstration and make it fit for purpose. This year, organisers are asking participants across the city to light a candle at 20.00, a potentially zeitgeist-defining act of defiance. The visual spectacle will be combined with a minute’s silence, although Hong Kong is unlikely to stay quiet for long. Renditions of the city’s protest anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, will carry extra gusto on a day when the city’s parliament is expected to approve a bill that would make it a crime to disrespect the Chinese national anthem, the March of the Volunteers. So little about what’s happening to Hong Kong is voluntary.