It is June 4 this weekend, a date that is indelibly etched in Chinese culture. Yet here in Hong Kong, the city's leader, John Lee, can't tell you whether it's currently legal to mourn in public the people who died in Tiananmen Square after the crackdown began on that date.
When asked to give a "Yes" or "No" answer as to whether it is "legal to peacefully mourn, individually, June 4 in public this Sunday," he instead gave a rambling 1 minute 47 second response, insisting that Hong Kong's National Security Law is not vague or unclear. You can see that performance here.
He's in fact the third Hong Kong official who could not say, "Yes" or "No," whether it will be illegal to commemorate June 4. In theory, Hong Kong still has freedom of speech written into its version of a constitution. And before 2019, the city was the site of the largest Tiananmen vigil around the world.
The gathering has recently been banned on "Covid" grounds using the emergency rules that outlawed large gatherings. But those justifications for stopping a vigil have expired. Instead, the police are refusing to grant permits for events on that date.
Unless you happen to be a Beijing-backed group of elderly people who are being pushed to hold a farmer's market/craft fair in Victoria Park, in which case have it. The soccer pitches previously used for the vigil are already booked up for a carnival held by 26 pro-Beijing organizations, with 200-odd booths selling specialty products from around mainland China. The organizers claim it's a coincidence they've booked out the site on June 4.
Those with a mind to memorialize the Tiananmen Square massacre would like to wear a black shirt, carry a candle, and remember those who died protesting for democracy and greater freedoms in China.
Can they do so? No one in the government will say, giving vague answers along the lines of "Try us, and see."
It is just such vague and unclear "red lines" in Hong Kong and China that are unnerving international investors. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon warned on Wednesday that "uncertainty" caused by the Chinese government could hurt sentiment for domestic investors as well as foreign direct investment into China from abroad. He is correct.
He is also outspoken. Dimon was in China for a JPMorgan summit in Shanghai. It's his first trip to China since he was forced to apologize in 2021 for stating, jokingly, that JPMorgan would outlast the Chinese Communist Party, which that year was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding. "I can't say that in China," Dimon said after delivering his quip. "They are probably listening anyway."
Entrepreneurs and business owners in China were shaken by the sudden scrapping of Alipay superapp operator Ant Group's listing in November 2020, after it had been approved by regulators and the stock exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai. It should have been a world-record initial public offering at US$37 billion.
All the approvals in the world didn't matter when Xi Jinping personally intervened to scrap the listing at the 11th hour. The Chinese leadership was furious with Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) (HK:9988) figurehead Jack Ma, who had given a speech critical of the Chinese financial system.
An investigation into Alibaba launched that expanded to include all the major tech companies in China. Meantime, sudden changes effectively outlawed after-school for-profit tutoring, curtailed the issuing of videogame licenses, and progressed into distinctly Maoist talk from Xi about the need to redistribute wealth and prevent the "disorderly expansion of capital."
It began to look like an all-out assault on the private sector altogether. No industry was safe from sudden rule changes. The Chinese property sector was forced through a painful deleveraging that has shaken confidence in homebuilders, with property prices still depressed. Only the disruption of Covid forced the temporary suspension of the Maoist campaign. Will it now begin again?
Both the Chinese and Hong Kong markets are approaching bear territory. International investors sold US$1.7 billion of mainland shares in May via the Stock Connect system linking the Hong Kong Stock Exchange with its mainland counterparts. That's up from US$659 million in April. They are slowly withdrawing some of the massive US$20.9 billion invested into China in January, when it appeared the economy would recover rapidly after Covid rules were scrapped.
The recovery is in doubt, as is much in China. Now, in Hong Kong, with its supposed free speech, no official will say you've got freedom of speech to mention Tiananmen. But the direction is clear. The government-owned broadcaster, RTHK, has suddenly removed a massive banner of thanks that has stood in the newsroom for 34 years, expressing gratitude to the reporters who covered the original 1989 crackdown.
"Standing firm at the forefront of reporting on the Beijing incident, setting an exemplary standard for professional broadcasting, standing guard at our roles, demonstrating fearless dedication, reporting with utmost truth and sincerity, we sincerely salute you," the letter read, according to Hong Kong Free Press, one of the few publications that still cover the Hong Kong government with a degree of critical scrutiny.
Beijing forced the National Security Law on Hong Kong in June 2020, with no input whatsoever from Hong Kongers. It criminalizes subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism. It also allows the Chinese secret police to operate in Hong Kong and has given police and the administration new powers. Those have been used to punish pro-democracy politicians, force free-speaking media out of business, and push even trades union to disband.
A favorite tactic is to arrest people on suspicion of a charge, get a government-friendly magistrate to deny bail, and keep suspects in jail for extended periods of time without charging them. Then milk out and delay the hearings that could get a case heard. And if all else fails and the government prosecutes and loses a case, simply appeal, or ask Beijing to "interpret" the inconvenient law in a new way.
It is clear the Hong Kong government doesn't want Tiananmen Square massacre vigils held, here or anywhere. The group that used to organize the vigils disbanded in 2021, after its leaders were arrested and three charged with alleged incitement to subversion. They face 10 years in prison if convicted. Two of the three have been denied bail for two years now.
The main grounds appear to be a demand from the organization to "end one-party dictatorship" in China, which the group pushed as a goal, as well as building a "democratic China." But as the group's advocates have argued, it should not be illegal to push for a better system of government, or democracy, in China. Or in Hong Kong.
A new Tiananmen Square museum has just opened in New York City, in an office building on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. A similar museum was forced to close in Hong Kong in 2021 after it was raided. And there will be vigils in London, Sydney, New York, Berlin and Taipei even if there's no official event in Hong Kong. But the National Security Law applies globally, not just in Hong Kong. In theory, that vagueness from Hong Kong officials applies globally, too.
It's quite likely that several thousand demonstrators died in Beijing in 1989 after paratroopers, soldiers and armed police fired directly at students and labor organizers who had gathered in and around Tiananmen Square since mid-April that year. Vehicles ran people over as the armed forces crushed and dispersed the protests. The Chinese government has attempted to airbrush the incident out of history.
But we'll remember this Sunday. Is it legal to do so anymore in Hong Kong? The government won't say. Try, and find out.