Updated 4:26 AM ET, Thu June 4, 2020
"It was a time of hope," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former Hong Kong lawmaker. At that time, the city was eight years out from being handed over from British to Chinese control, and there was a sense that the young protesters across the border could be changing China for the better.
"For many Hong Kongers, we felt that 1997 was really hanging over our heads. But young people in China were demanding democracy, and we thought if they make it, it means Hong Kong will not have to live under an authoritarian regime."
That hope became despair, however, as the People's Liberation Army crushed the protests on June 4. No official death toll has ever been released, but rights groups estimate hundreds, if not thousands were killed. The Tiananmen protests and the crackdown have been wiped from the history books in China, censored and controlled, organizers exiled or arrested, and the relatives of those who died kept under tight surveillance.
Every year since then, Lee has helped organize a candlelit rally in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary, the only mass memorial held on Chinese soil and a key emblem of the semi-autonomous city's political freedoms. Every year, that is, until this year.
On Monday, police refused permission for this year's rally, citing ongoing restrictions on mass gatherings related to the coronavirus pandemic. For many in the democratic opposition, the justification rings hollow: organizers had said they would work with the authorities to ensure a safe and socially-distanced rally, and meanwhile the city's shopping districts, subway, and public parks have been open for weeks with little issue.
Speaking to reporters after the ban was announced, Lee said the police were "suppressing our vigil under the pretense of executing the gathering ban."
The decision by police carries extra weight as many already feared this week might be the last opportunity to freely mark the anniversary. Last month, China announced that it would impose a national security law on Hong Kong, in response to widespread and often violent anti-government unrest last year.
The law criminalizes secession, sedition and subversion. It also permits Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong for the first time -- leading to fears among many in the city that members of the PLA could be deployed onto the streets should protests resume.
Nor is it the only controversial law on the horizon. On Thursday, Hong Kong lawmakers resumed a third reading of a bill that will criminalize insulting China's national anthem, "March of the Volunteers."
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group co-founded by Lee which has organized the Tiananmen vigil every year since 1990, has warned that it could be banned under the national security law, pointing to its previous support of activists convicted under similar national security laws in China and a longstanding opposition to "one party dictatorship."
There is good reason to believe the vigil may be banned in future. Last month, CY Leung, the city's former chief executive and high-ranking member of a Chinese government advisory body, predicted just as much, while a commemoration in neighboring Macao -- which already has an national security law on the books -- has also been blocked by authorities.
On Thursday, police reiterated that they had refused permission for two gatherings on June 4, one on Hong Kong Island and another in Kowloon, and warned members of the public "to stay at home and avoid travelling to crowded places or participating in prohibited gatherings."
According to the South China Morning Post, some 3,000 riot cops will be deployed across the city Thursday, even as organizers of the Tiananmen rally urged police to stay away, saying without them present "there will be no clashes."