Hong Kong marks Tiananmen crackdown as anthem insults and vigil banned
A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989.

Hong Kong marked China's deadly Tiananmen crackdown on Thursday, with candle-light ceremonies planned across the city after authorities banned a mass vigil at a time of seething anger over a planned new security law.

The commemorations fell on another febrile day of political tension in the semi-autonomous city as lawmakers approved a Beijing-backed bill criminalizing insults to China's national anthem.

Pro-democracy politicians refused to cast their ballots with one throwing a foul-smelling liquid on the floor in a bid to halt proceedings and others shouting slogans as the votes were cast.

Opponents say the law is the latest move by Beijing to snuff out the city's cherished freedoms and have rallied around the symbolism of the law being passed on the anniversary of Tiananmen.

Open discussion of the brutal suppression is forbidden in mainland China where hundreds -- by some estimates more than a thousand -- died when the Communist Party sent tanks into Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 to crush a student-led demonstration calling for democratic reforms.

AFP / Laurence CHU Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kongers have kept memories alive for the past three decades by holding a huge annual vigil, the only part of China where such mass displays of remembrance are possible.

But this year's service was banned on public health grounds because of the coronavirus pandemic with barricades surrounding Victoria Park, the traditional ceremony venue, and police patrolling nearby.

Organizers have called for residents to instead light candles of remembrance at 8pm (1200 GMT) wherever they are.

"I don't believe it's because of the pandemic. I think it's political suppression," a 53-year-old man surnamed Wong, told AFP after kneeling by the park barricades to pay respects to the dead.

"I do worry that we may lose this vigil forever."

On the campus of Hong Kong University, students spent the afternoon cleaning a memorial to the Tiananmen dead known as "The Pillar of Shame".

- Security and anthem laws -

AFP / John SAEKIHong Kong security law in the hands of China

Crowds have swelled at Hong Kong's Tiananmen vigils whenever fears have spiked that Beijing is prematurely stamping out the city's own cherished freedoms, an issue that has dominated the finance hub for the past 12 months.

The city was engulfed by seven straight months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests last year -- rallies that kicked off five days after the last annual vigil.

In response to those demonstrations last month Beijing announced plans to impose the security law, which would cover secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference.

AFP / ISAAC LAWRENCE Hong Kong's huge annual Tiananmen vigil has been banned this year because of the coronavirus

China says the law -- which will bypass Hong Kong's legislature -- is needed to tackle "terrorism" and "separatism" in a restless city it now regards as a direct national security threat.

Opponents, including many Western nations, fear it will bring mainland-style political oppression to a business hub supposedly guaranteed freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 handover from Britain.

- Blackout on mainland -

With the Victoria Park vigil banned, Hong Kongers are organizing locally and getting creative, chiefly with the scattered candle-light ceremonies.

Seven Catholic churches have also announced plans to host a commemorative mass on Thursday evening.

But in mainland China, the crackdown is greeted by an information blackout, with censors scrubbing mentions of protests and dissidents often visited by police ahead of June 4.

AFP/File / Philip FONG People in 2019 attend a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong to mark the Tiananmen crackdown anniversary

Police in Beijing prevented an AFP photographer from entering Tiananmen Square to record the regular pre-dawn flag-raising ceremony on Thursday and ordered him to delete some photos.

The candle emoji has been unavailable in recent days on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform.

The United States and Taiwan issued statements calling on China to atone for the deadly crackdown.

"Around the world, there are 365 days in a year. Yet in China, one of those days is purposely forgotten each year," Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a photo of him meeting prominent Tiananmen survivors as US racial justice protests continue.

On Wednesday, China's foreign ministry described calls for Beijing to apologize for the crackdown as "complete nonsense".

"The great achievements since the founding of new China over the past 70 or so years fully demonstrates that the developmental path China has chosen is completely correct," spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.