Hong Kong activists were arrested for trying to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on 4 June. The country was once home to large-scale annual vigils, but these have been brought to an end as China has clamped down on civic space in reaction to democracy protests that mobilised in 2019. Many activists have been detained, including under the draconian National Security Law introduced three years ago, and trials continue. Many have taken the route of exile, including in response to growing state control of the education and legal systems, leaving Hong Kong a shadow of its former self.

Nothing was more predictable than repression. Merely for holding candles and flowers, people were taken away by Hong Kong’s police. Some 32 people were reportedly detained.

The occasion was the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, 4 June 1989, when Chinese troops brutally crushed reform protests, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in Beijing. Hong Kong was until recently home to mass annual vigils where thousands gathered to keep alive the memory of that day. But that’s all gone now in the crackdown that followed large-scale protests for democracy that erupted in 2019.

Hong Kong’s authorities, under Chinese state control, are evidently determined to erase any form of acknowledgement that the Tiananmen Square Massacre ever happened. A museum dedicated to the event has been shut down. Memorials and artworks commemorating it have been removed. Books that mention the tragedy have disappeared from Hong Kong’s libraries. Shops selling the LED candles commonly used to mark the occasion were visited by the authorities in the run up to this year’s anniversary. Thousands of police officers were deployed on 4 June.

The organisation behind the vigil, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Movements in China, closed itself down in 2021 following a police investigation on suspicion of being an ‘agent of foreign forces’. Its leaders have faced prosecution on multiple charges. Several of them were jailed in March. Among them is Chow Hang-tung; it was her third sentence in relation to her work with the Alliance and its annual commemoration.

Instead of hosting the usual vigil, this year Hong Kong’s Victoria Park was home to a carnival celebrating Chinese rule, featuring music performances and food from across the mainland. People wanting to mark the occasion had to do so in private.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Intensifying repression has recently led the CIVICUS Monitor – our research collaboration that assesses the state of civic space in 197 countries – to downgrade Hong Kong’s civic space rating to the worst category, closed – the same rating long held by mainland China. Now people are mourning not only the many who died on 4 June 1989 but also the Hong Kong that is vanishing before their eyes.

Further than ever away from democracy

When Hong Kong was handed over to China by its former colonial power, the UK, in 1997, the Chinese government agreed to maintain the country’s distinct political and economic structures for the next 50 years, under the banner of ‘one country, two systems’.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which came into effect on handover, guaranteed civic rights, including freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. China committed to move towards universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, the head of government.

But following the democracy protests that shook Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, China has unilaterally torn up that agreement. Three years ago, the government passed the National Security Law, a sweeping piece of legislation that makes criticism of the authorities a criminal act. It’s been used alongside existing laws, such as the law on sedition, to jail leaders of the democracy movement. Over 200 people have reportedly been arrested under the National Security Law, with most of them denied bail. Several democracy activists have experienced multiple trials and been handed long sentences. The only way others have avoided this fate is through exile.

Everyday repression is making Hong Kong a hollowed-out country, its population falling.

China never made good on its promise of progressing to universal suffrage. Instead it’s headed in the opposite direction. Current Chief Executive John Lee – who as security chief led the violent crackdown on democracy protests – was chosen last year not by voters from the country’s 7.4 million population but by a 1,500-member Election Committee, vetted to ensure their patriotism, which duly endorsed him as the sole candidate.

The Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, had already been neutered. Although only ever partly directly elected, it once provided a valuable forum for pro-democracy parties, but in the last election, in December 2021, the number of directly elected seats was slashed and people were disqualified from standing if they questioned China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong or supported independence.

Now the District Councils are in the firing line too. These are municipal bodies that provide local services and community activities, with no real political power. But when the last elections were held, in the thick of democracy protests in November 2019, there was an unprecedented turnout and pro-China parties were routed. Pro-democracy and pro-autonomy parties took 388 of 479 seats.

Such a result is now impossible, since people campaigning on a democracy ticket would fall foul of the National Security Law. In 2021, a law was passed requiring all district councillors to swear an oath of allegiance affirming their ‘patriotism’ for China or face disqualification. Most of the pro-democracy candidates elected in 2019 were subsequently disqualified or resigned.

Just to make sure, when new district councillors are chosen in November, the system will be very different. Under plans announced in May, only 20 per cent of seats will be directly elected. The authorities will fill the rest with their supporters. All will be vetted to ensure their ‘patriotism’. Little wonder that the Civic Party, a pro-democracy party that came second in the last District Council elections, recently announced it was closing down. Its leaders face charges under the National Security Law.

A hollowed-out Hong Kong

Hong Kong was once a country where people felt safe to protest and civil society organisations could organise and operate. It had a flourishing media and publishing industry and thriving universities, and was home to many tech companies. Now journalists are among those criminalised, key independent media have shut down and international media have relocated, unable to operate under the National Security Law.

Civil society organisations and trade unions have done the same in an attempt to avoid their leaders ending up in jail. The remaining organisations are scattered, no longer able to work collectively, practising self-censorship. Protests continue to be heavily restricted: this year a planned International Women’s Day march was cancelled following police threats and a Labour Day March was scrapped when one of its organisers was apparently detained.

People continue to try to find ways to express dissent, but any small gesture can attract the state’s ire. The death of Queen Elizabeth II last year provided an opportunity for people not just to mark the end of an era but also to use public mourning as a way of expressing their anger with the regression since handover. But when a vigil was held outside the British consulate during the Queen’s funeral, a harmonica player was arrested for daring to play the British national anthem and the tune Glory to Hong Kong, a song associated with the democracy protests.

Last year five speech therapists were convicted of producing ‘seditious publications’. Their crime was to produce a series of children’s books in which sheep defend their villages from wolves. This was taken to be an allegory of China’s control of Hong Kong. This year two people were arrested for owning the books.

Everyday repression is making Hong Kong a hollowed-out country, its population falling. Some schools face closure due to falling student numbers. A declining birth rate is one reason, but another is that many have fled, not wanting their children to grow up in a country where basic freedoms are denied and education is indoctrination. Education institutions are now tightly controlled, since young people were so heavily involved in the democracy protests, and schools and universities were blamed for not turning out obedient students. The curriculum has been reworked to teach students loyalty rather than independent thought. Many teachers are leaving the country or taking early retirement.

The legal system that criminalises people for even these symbolic acts of dissent can occasionally deliver an upset. Recently journalist Choy Yuk-ling won an appeal over her conviction in relation to an investigation of the police’s response to a violent attack on pro-democracy protesters. Last year Chow Hang-tung won an appeal against one of her three convictions in relation to the Tiananmen Square commemorations. But these are rare moments. The legal system is applying the bad laws recently passed, and faces increasing interference and political pressure. Lawyers are also among those fleeing in response to growing intimidation.

A key test will be the trial of Jimmy Lai, a business leader, former media owner and democracy campaigner. He’s already been found guilty on numerous counts, and his newspaper, Apple Daily, once Hong Kong’s most widely read pro-democracy paper, shut down in 2021. He now faces trial under the National Security Law, which could mean a life sentence.

The judges who will try Lai have been handpicked by John Lee. Meanwhile the authorities have tried to prevent Lai’s defence lawyer, UK barrister Tim Owen, representing him in court, despite many precedents of foreign lawyers acting in Hong Kong trials. In March they passed a law giving Lee the power to ban foreign lawyers working on national security cases. United Nations human rights experts recently shared their ‘grave concern’ over Lai’s continuing detention. It isn’t looking promising.

Lai is one of 1,508 political prisoners in Hong Kong, many of them young people spending precious years of their lives behind bars for actions that wouldn’t be considered an offence in any democracy. Even as Hong Kong’s population shrinks, its imprisoned population just keeps getting bigger. The candles that commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the yearning for democracy will continue to flare around the world in exile – but those lights are clearly being extinguished in Hong Kong.


  • The Hong Kong authorities should commit to repealing the National Security Law and the law on sedition.
  • The authorities should drop all criminal proceedings against human rights defenders, activists, journalists, political figures and others targeted solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and immediately and unconditionally release those detained.
  • Civil society in countries with exiled Hong Kong activists should provide support and help sustain international networks of exiled activists.

Cover photo by Yan Zhao/AFP via Getty Images