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People take part in a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2019.Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

In the decades since the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989, one of the most indelible images associated with the event, alongside “Tank Man” and the Goddess of Democracy statue, has been a sea of candles, lighting up the night.

Every year, tens of thousands gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the dead and echo their calls for democracy in China.

No more. The 30th anniversary of the massacre in 2019 was the last time it was marked by a mass gathering in Hong Kong. Memorials since then have been banned on coronavirus grounds, as is the case this year, with public gatherings still limited to four people.

Instead, the anniversary will be commemorated by smaller events, spread over the world, often organized by members of the Hong Kong and Chinese diasporas. While many are longstanding memorials – in places like Toronto, London and San Francisco – they are taking on a new importance now that there is no centralized mass event on Chinese soil.

“With the last symbol of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in Hong Kong being taken away it is crucial for Hong Kongers and all persons of conscience around the world to pick up the torch and make sure that the flame of freedom and democracy remain burning,” said Mabel Tung, chair of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement (VSSDM), a group founded by Chinese Canadians in support of the 1989 protests.

“Ultimately, it will be up to all of us who live in a democratic nation to keep the memory of June 4th alive.”

Earlier this week, Hong Kong police warned that anyone gathering in Victoria Park, where public areas have been blocked off for June 4, would run the risk of prosecution, echoing comments by the city’s leader, Carrie Lam.

“As far as any gathering is concerned, there are a lot of legal requirements,” Ms. Lam told reporters.

“There is the national security law; there are the social distancing restrictions … and there is also a venue question – whether a particular activity has received the authorization to take place in a particular venue.”

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which traditionally organized the annual candlelit vigil, was forced to disband last year after its assets were frozen and multiple leaders jailed under the national security law imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020.

Catholic churches that previously held memorial masses – including in the last two years when the main vigil was banned – have also said they would no longer do so given the growing legal risk.

“We find it very difficult under the current social atmosphere,” Reverend Martin Ip, chaplain of the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students, told AFP. “Our bottom line is that we don’t want to breach any law in Hong Kong.”

Meanwhile, an online museum dedicated to the Tiananmen massacre appears to have been blocked by Hong Kong internet providers, joining a number of dissident and activist groups websites based overseas that are not accessible to users in the city.

Whether the Tiananmen vigils could continue was long seen as a key test for Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from China, said Sean Cha of Democracy for Hong Kong, which is organizing a vigil in London.

“The fact that it cannot happen anymore gives a new meaning to the June 4 vigils for Hong Kongers around the world,” he said. “The vigil is also a reminder of the death of the freedom and democracy we once enjoyed in Hong Kong.”

Many organizers of events around the world are feeling a renewed sense of responsibility with the loss of the Victoria Park vigil. For more than 30 years now, Toronto has hosted the largest memorial in the world outside Hong Kong, said organizer Cheuk Kwan, “so it’s even more significant that we keep it up.”

“Just like the fall of the Berlin Wall … June 4 is not a China event, it is a world event,” he added. “It is up to all of us to carry the burden of remembering.”

Amnesty International said it is arranging events in more than 20 cities this year, and will call on participants not only to remember those killed in Beijing, but also “stand in solidarity with those in Hong Kong whose peaceful acts of commemoration are now criminalized.”

In Asia, one of the largest memorials will be in Taipei, where organizers plan to unveil a replica of the “Pillar of Shame,” a statue commemorating the Tiananmen victims that was forcibly removed from Hong Kong last year.

The Taiwanese government issued a statement Friday expressing “deep regret” over its neighbouring government’s “failure to reflect on its mistakes and its unrepentant enforcement of mass surveillance, suppression of free speech, and infringement on human rights.”

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