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Participants wave a flag reading 'Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now' during a vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, June 4, 2020, despite applications for it being officially denied.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Thousands of people defied a police ban in Hong Kong Thursday, staging an illegal candlelight vigil to mark the 31st anniversary of the attack on Tiananmen Square, as China increases its legal rule of the territory with a new anthem law and preparation to impose national-security legislation.

The security law, which is expected later this month, will criminalize conduct in Hong Kong that fits China’s definitions of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the law and said that the roughly 300,000 Canadian citizens living in the Asian city can return to Canada whenever they feel threatened by Beijing.

On Thursday, the Tiananmen vigil was banned for the first time, with authorities citing pandemic risks and the need for physical distancing. Barricades surrounded Victoria Park, where the annual June 4 candlelight vigil has for decades brought out hundreds of thousands of people in sombre commemoration.

On some of the barricades, signs declared a “renovation in progress.” Others said the closing was because of COVID-19.

But as night fell, people gathering at the park pushed over the barricades, and a crowd dispersed across the park, holding candles and cellphone lights as they marked a moment of silence. Elsewhere in the city, churches opened their doors to allow indoor ceremonies of remembrance. People posted images of flickering candle flames to social media.

“All protests are banned at the moment, the right of Hong Kong people to freedom of peaceful assembly has been suspended, and Hong Kong people are more eager than ever to get out on the street and show their discontent,” said Kong Tsung-gan, author of As Long as There is Resistance, There is Hope, which examines the rise of the city’s young activists in recent years.

Later in the evening, hundreds of people barricaded some streets and clashed with police. Authorities said at least one officer was injured, and a suspicious package detonated.

In 1989, Chinese troops took aim at their own people, staining the area around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with the blood of students who had gathered to demand democratic freedoms and transparency from corrupt officials.

In the years that followed, Chinese authorities have overseen a national drive to forget, calling the massacre a “political disturbance.”

Only one place on Chinese soil has been able to remember: Hong Kong.

But to those who worry Beijing wants to project its deliberate amnesia onto Hong Kong as well, the barricaded park in the city stood as a discomfiting image of a future where Chinese law rules.

“People are genuinely worried we have seen our last June 4 vigil, as it is likely national security will be used as a pretext to ban it in future,” said Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, a poet and scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“People are determined not to let Beijing cow us into being silent, even if ultimately that is what Beijing wants to do,” she said.

On Thursday, a short distance away from Victoria Park, the city’s legislators voted into law a bill that creates sentences of up to three years in jail for those found guilty of insulting March of the Volunteers, China’s national anthem.

Resistance to the measures remains fierce. In the midst of the anthem-law debate Thursday, pro-democracy legislators Eddie Chu and Ray Chan were evicted after releasing a foul-smelling liquid in the council’s chambers.

"A murderous state stinks forever,” Mr. Chu said later. “What we did today is to remind the world that we should never forgive the Chinese Communist Party for killing its own people 31 years ago.”

After the shooting stopped in 1989, the Chinese Red Cross estimated that 2,600 people were killed. Women and children were shot. Tanks crushed others to death. Doctors who rushed to the scene were killed. Chinese authorities have never released an official death toll.

Three decades later, Beijing is moving on multiple fronts to extend its rule – and its codes of acceptable conduct – onto Hong Kong, a city that has long prized freedoms of speech and assembly not permitted in mainland China. Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam has pledged major change to the city’s school curriculum, after saying schoolchildren are being fed “false and biased information” and need to be kept from being “poisoned.”

Last month, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong suspended Headliner, a satirical program, after local police complained that the show had ridiculed the constabulary.

“The efforts to revise the school curriculum in Hong Kong are designed to promote patriotism, as are efforts to rein in publishing and the media,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist who specializes in China at the University of Chicago.

“So far, the effect is in shaping the discourse but we all know the boundaries of discourse will affect memory.”

Earlier this week, Ms. Lam visited Beijing and insisted that the new national-security law will not undermine the interests of the majority of “Hong Kong residents who are abiding by the law.” She has accused Western critics of “double standards,” saying every country seeks to protect its national security.

Last week, Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne co-signed a statement with his counterparts in Australia, Britain and the U.S., which said the national-security law “raises the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes, and undermines existing commitments to protect the rights of Hong Kong people.”

Among those still pledging to go to Victoria Park Thursday was Mak Hoi-wah, the former vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organizes the annual vigil.

“We will surround the area and complete our memorial,” he said.

After a year of often-violent protest in Hong Kong, he said, remembering what happened at Tiananmen has become even more important.

“That incident always serves as a warning to us, a reminder that we risk greater restrictions and loss of rights if we don’t fight. We here will suffer from the same level of violence if we just let them rule Hong Kong," he said.

Still, he is not optimistic about the future for Hong Kong’s rituals of remembrance, pointing to mainland China, where even those who lost loved ones in 1989 are barred from memorial ceremonies.

“They will take all measures to create the same scene in Hong Kong,” he said. “This year’s vigil is just a start.”

With reports from Alexandra Li

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