Hong Kong police have fired pepper-spray at protesters as thousands defied a ban on holding an annual candlelight vigil in memory of the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Authorities rejected an application on Monday to hold the event for the first time in its history, arguing the vigil would violate coronavirus social-distancing rules on large gatherings.
Police clashed briefly on Thursday in the working-class Mong Kok area, where hundreds had gathered and some demonstrators tried to set up roadblocks with metal barriers.
Officers used spray to disperse the protesters, according to witnesses, and several demonstrators were arrested, police said.
Despite the ban, crowds poured into Victoria Park to light candles and observe a minute of silence at 8:09pm, with many chanting “Democracy now” and “Stand for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”.
“If we don’t come out today, we don’t even know if we can still come out next year,” Serena Cheung, an attendee at the vigil, told AP.
The event took place amid concerns over China’s growing influence on Hong Kong after the territory’s legislature passed a law this week making it a crime to disrespect the Chinese national anthem.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of people were killed in June 1989, when tanks and troops moved in on Tiananmen Square to break up weeks of student-led protests that had spread to other cities and were seen as a threat to the ruling Communist Party.
“We all know the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government really don’t want to see the candle lights in Victoria Park,” Wu’er Kaixi, a former student leader who was No. 2 on the government’s most-wanted list following the crackdown, said.
“The Chinese Communists want us all to forget about what happened 31 years ago,” he told AP in Taiwan, where he lives.
“But it is the Chinese government themselves reminding the whole world that they are the same government … doing the same in Hong Kong.”
Last month, China’s ceremonial legislature ratified a decision to impose national security laws on Hong Kong, circumventing the city’s legislature and shocking its residents.
Pro-democracy campaigners have warned the laws are part of an erosion of the rights Hong Kong was given when it was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle.