Participants gesture with five fingers, signifying the "Five demands - not one less" and posters read "Heaven will destroy the CCP" during a vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, Thursday, June 4, 2020, despite applications for it being officially denied. China is tightening controls over dissidents while pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and elsewhere try to mark the 31st anniversary of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Hong Kong held a vigil that broke a government ban. See what it was like
02:02 - Source: CNN
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Thousands of Hong Kongers defied a police ban Thursday to gather in the city’s Victoria Park and mark the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The rally, which has been held every year since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in China, had been banned over coronavirus fears, a move many viewed as political in a city where infections are down to a handful per month.

Early Thursday evening however, hundreds and then thousands of people defied the order, as well as signs and fences around Victoria Park, to occupy two large football pitches where the rally has been traditionally held. While numbers appeared down on previous years, and the usually well-organized memorial had a rather chaotic impromptu feel, they were by no means negligible, a major sign of defiance to Beijing.

Crowds gather in Victoria Park depite the ban.

Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer and former lawmaker, led the crowd in chants of “end one-party rule,” and “democracy for China!”

Others chanted slogans from last year’s anti-government protests, including “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” and a more recent refrain, “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”

Those slogans could be illegal in the near future, as Beijing moves to impose a national security law banning sedition, secession and separatism. Similar laws have been used to crack down on dissidents and pro-democracy activists in China.

National security law looms

That impending law is currently being drafted in Beijing and will be imposed automatically in Hong Kong via a rarely used constitutional backdoor, bypassing the city’s legislature. The law hung over this year’s Tiananmen memorial even before the event was officially banned, as both opposition and pro-government figures have predicted similar rallies could be illegal in future.

Hong Kong has long been the only place on Chinese soil where a mass commemoration of the June 4 crackdown is held. This fact has been a litmus test of sorts for the city’s autonomy from China, which has shrunk considerably in recent years, culminating in the national security law, which Beijing has said is necessary to prevent the type of violent unrest seen last year.

A man holds a candle at Thursday's vigil.

That unrest had been resuming as Hong Kong came out of the coronavirus crisis, and social distancing regulations relaxed. But police had responded to earlier protests with overwhelming numbers, and used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse several gatherings in recent weeks.

Thursday saw a complete reversal in tactics, as police stayed largely out of sight as several thousand people ignored fences and signs to gather illegally in Victoria Park. It was a striking contrast, perhaps a deliberate one, with protests in the US, which Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday pointed at to accuse critics of hers in Washington of “double standards.”