People hold up their candles during the June 4th Candle Light Vigil at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. Photo: Dickson Lee
by SCMP Editorial
by SCMP Editorial

Hong Kong authorities have to clarify legal position of candlelight vigils

  • Events commemorating Tiananmen crackdown were the best known symbol of the city’s freedoms and they should be allowed to continue as long as they remain lawful

The candlelight vigil commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown is the most prominent public event in Hong Kong to be banned during the pandemic. This poignant, peaceful memorial in Victoria Park, attended by tens of thousands, was, for almost 30 years, the best known symbol of the city’s freedoms.

It has been prohibited for two years on public health grounds. This year, the football pitches it occupies are restricted to sports activities and fully booked. No organisation has even attempted to organise the vigil this time, amid fears it will be deemed seditious or breach the national security law passed in 2020.

The vigil remembered the hundreds, possibly more, killed when the military crushed peaceful student protests in Beijing 33 years ago today. It was organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.

The group disbanded last year and prominent members have been arrested. There are allegations it breached the security law. Meanwhile, those who defied the vigil ban in 2020 have been jailed.

It is not surprising, in this environment, that there has been no attempt to organise the event. The Catholic Church decided not to even hold its commemorative mass for the first time in three decades.

There is a need for the legal position to be clarified. It is unclear precisely what is permitted and what is not. The future of the vigil is at stake. The police have warned people not to join unlawful gatherings around Victoria Park.

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A senior superintendent saw no legal issues for those who simply light candles at home, but the officer, understandably, could not state with certainty whether every hypothetical scenario raised would break the law.

If the government believes the event should never be held again, it should say so. But commemorating Tiananmen has deep meaning for Hong Kong people. The Basic Law protects free expression and assembly. These considerations should not be overlooked.

It may be that the alliance’s long-standing call for an end to one-party rule in China would now be considered unlawful. The chanting of certain slogans might also prompt arrests.

But it should be possible for a public commemoration to take place, so long as it is peaceful and there is no repeat of the sort of violence witnessed during civil unrest in 2019. The pending passage of new security laws will provide an opportunity to clarify the legal position.

The candlelight vigil was potent evidence that Hong Kong’s freedoms were intact under the “one country, two systems” concept. We hope this moving memorial will be able to resume when the risk of Covid-19 has receded and people will be given the confidence to lawfully organise and attend the iconic event.