Some members of Canada’s Chinese diaspora are feeling the pressure to carry the torch as Hong Kong’s renowned vigil commemorating the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square falls silent.
Sunday marks the 34th anniversary of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, in which tanks rolled into the heart of Beijing and hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people were killed.
Hong Kong’s Victoria Park had for decades been the only place on Chinese soil where large numbers gathered annually to commemorate those killed.
But on Sunday, Victoria Park will instead be occupied by a carnival organized by pro-Beijing groups to celebrate Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
The Hong Kong vigil organizers’ vote to disband in 2021 — spurred by enforcement of the Chinese government’s law that suppresses public displays of opposition — has driven many overseas Chinese communities to step up their own efforts, including here in Canada.
Mabel Tung, chairwoman of the society hosting the Vancouver vigil at David Lam Park on Sunday, said organizers started putting together the event a month early because activists feel the added responsibility of carrying on the work of the Hong Kong vigil.
“This year we started in March to plan ahead and work with other organizations across Canada in Toronto and also Calgary … so those who went to Victoria Park every year have a sense that we still remember the massacre and the people of Hong Kong,” Tung said.
The location of David Lam Park, an urban, waterfront park similar to Victoria Park, was chosen in part to echo the spirit of the Hong Kong protests.
For some members of the diaspora, the June 4 vigil has taken on new significance due to China’s national security law crackdown in Hong Kong since 2020, where Tiananmen-related statues have been removed from universities and books about the event have been pulled off public library shelves.
Winnie Ng, co-chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said Sunday’s vigil and its message may be more relevant than ever, given Hong Kong’s slide into authoritarianism, as well as recent controversies about possible Chinese interference in Canadian politics and intimidation of overseas dissidents.
“In a way, Hong Kong has now become a police state right before our eyes,” Ng said. “The very fabric of a civil society, a proud tradition of a rule-of-law system has now been decimated,” Ng said.
“So, we this year feel it’s important to express both our outrage, as well as recommit ourselves to saying the lights in Victoria Park may have been dimmed, but the light of human rights, justice, freedom and democracy will continue all over the world.”
Last year, Ng said the organizers began seeing people who had left Hong Kong and resettled in Canada attending the vigil in large numbers. There were also some members of the mainland Chinese community decrying China’s rigid zero-COVID policies during the pandemic.
The Toronto vigil will be held Sunday in Mel Lastman Square.
With protests and memorial gatherings effectively quashed in Hong Kong, residents there will have to commemorate June 4 privately. But large gatherings are planned in other cities around the world this weekend, including New York, London and Taipei.
Vancouver activist Thekla Lit, president of the British Columbia Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia, recently visited Taipei and said the responsibility to increase awareness of the June 4 event felt by the diaspora in Canada is echoed in other major cities with large overseas Chinese communities.
“I would say that what happened on June 4, 1989, even though it happened 34 years ago, it’s actually living history,” Lit said. “So, we have to learn from this history that we have to be very vigilant and defend ourselves, our own democratic freedoms from these regimes.”
The key, Ng said, is to keep the memories of events like June 4 alive so the next generation will not forget what has happened, even if they did not live through the protests firsthand.
“I might not see the outcome that we desire in my lifetime,” Ng said. “But I think it’s important for all of us to take that responsibility, because what we’re doing is not just saying what’s wrong with China and elsewhere, but also saying, as Canadians, how do we use our voice to safeguard our democratic system within Canada?”
— With files from The Associated Press
Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press