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Four years after the pro-democracy movement’s last major uprising, Beijing uses familiar tactics to erase the memory of what happened

Open this photo in gallery:A guest sits near the entrance to "The Hong Kong Story" exhibit at the Chinese territory's history museum on September 4, 2023.

A visitor sits at the entrance to The Hong Kong Story, a pop-up exhibit at the Chinese-held city's history museum. After years of crackdowns on pro-democracy groups, authorities here are careful in how they frame the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China.James Griffiths/The Globe and Mail

As Hong Kong prepared for the onslaught of a super typhoon late last month, the anniversary of another storm passed largely unmarked.

During anti-government demonstrations that had brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill in 2019, riot police had burst into a stationary train at Prince Edward subway station and began beating and pepper-spraying passengers.

Live-streamed and endlessly replayed, it was one of the more shocking events of the protests, and remains one of the most contentious, a focus of anger and conspiracy theories.

In the immediate aftermath, an entrance to the station became an impromptu shrine, one that was repeatedly cleared and rebuilt.

On the Aug. 31 anniversary last month, dozens of riot police were deployed to guard against any such memorializing, and two men who turned up with flowers were threatened with arrest and hustled away.

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Floral tributes pile outside Prince Edward subway station on Sept. 3, 2019, days after the police assault on protesters inside.Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Four years after the protests, the Hong Kong authorities have largely stamped out the civil-society movement that powered them.

In the past 12 months, they have also begun rewriting the history of the unrest itself, part of a concerted effort to control the narrative and ensure no such challenge to Chinese rule over Hong Kong ever happens again.

“The so-called ‘831 incident’ has been proven a fabrication,” the police said in a statement on the Aug. 31 anniversary. “It was a lie manipulated by people with ulterior motives to attack the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government and smear the police force.”

While conspiracies continue to swirl around the incident – including unproven allegations protesters were killed by police – the statement is characteristic of a new attitude among officials to the 2019 unrest, one often out of keeping with how the government reacted at the time, but which echoes how Beijing rewrote the history of protest movements in mainland China.

“What is unfolding in Hong Kong is in line with what has been under way for some years on the mainland,” said Steve Tsang, a historian of Hong Kong and director of the SOAS China Institute in London. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, he added, “facts have nothing to do with history.”

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A protester's umbrella catches fire on Nov. 17, 2019, outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which police besieged for months as pro-democracy groups occupied campus buildings.Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Police commissioner Chris Tang speaks to an officer on Christmas Eve, 2019, during a period of unrest he now blames on foreign agitators.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Perhaps no Hong Kong official has adopted this approach as enthusiastically as security chief Chris Tang. In a Facebook video last month, Mr. Tang reiterated claims the 2019 unrest was directed by unnamed foreign actors, but then took it a step further, saying this was also the case for protests even before Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

“The intention of external forces to make use of Hong Kong to endanger our national security did not come about overnight,” Mr. Tang said. “They were determined to do so before the reunification. That is why over the past two decades, national security incidents repeatedly occurred in Hong Kong.”

He described mass rallies in 2003 as a “trial run” for the unnamed foreigners, who had “cultivated” local opposition groups to manipulate social issues and “create conflicts.”

On July 1, 2003, some 500,000 people took to the streets against a proposed anti-sedition law. At the time, then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa praised Hong Kongers for braving the “sizzling hot weather” to express concern over the legislation, “their dissatisfaction over government policies, and over my governance in particular.”

“I fully understand the community’s sentiments,” Mr. Tung said, proposing several amendments to the bill, which was eventually scrapped after it lost support from even many pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Jeffrey Ngo, a historian at Georgetown University in Washington and former member of the Hong Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto, said while there was a “fringe interpretation” that blamed protests as far back as 2014 on foreign forces, “that kind of rhetoric had not entered into Hong Kong’s political discourse” in 2003.

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Protesters with umbrellas march from Hong Kong's Victoria Park in 2019. Umbrellas became a familiar symbol of the pro-democracy movement five years earlier, when demonstrators used them as shields against police pepper spray.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

While the manner in which the government reacted to events 20 years ago is hard for many to remember, 2019 is much closer to mind – but this has not stopped officials from attempting to rewrite history.

At a press conference in May, Hong Kong leader John Lee remonstrated with a journalist for referring to the “2019 protests.”

“It is not the 2019 protests,” he said. “It is the black violence. It is the attempt to make Hong Kong independent, and the attempt to cause disaster to Hong Kong society as a whole.” Mr. Lee, who was security chief at the time, added: “We lived through that, and don’t forget it.”

But four years ago, after hundreds of thousands of people protested a proposed extradition bill with China, the administration Mr. Lee was part of issued a statement noting that “as a free, open and pluralistic society, we acknowledge and respect that people have different views on a wide range of issues.”

Shelving the law weeks later, after the protests had exploded into mass unrest, then-chief executive Carrie Lam publicly apologized for her administration’s handling of the issue.

While officials did become more forceful in their language as the unrest grew and became increasingly violent – and some blamed overseas forces for the protests – it was not until recently that the entire movement, which began with more than a million people taking to the streets in peaceful marches, started to be painted as extreme or separatist.

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In Manila this past June, Filipinos mark the anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

This reinterpretation of history to match new political priorities follows a playbook long used by Beijing. In 1989, some Chinese government officials and state media were sympathetic to the student-led, pro-democracy protests popping up in cities across the country. After paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sent tanks into Tiananmen Square on June 4, the protesters were recast as rioters and the unrest gradually wiped from history.

A decade later, Mr. Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin took a similar approach to the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Initially supported and even promoted by the government as part of a wider qigong revival, the group was brutally suppressed after staging an audacious demonstration in Beijing in April, 1999, and is now categorized as an “evil cult.”

Like the Tiananmen Square massacre, discussion of Falun Gong is today subject to intense censorship in mainland China.

“About once each decade, the true face of history is thoroughly erased from the memory of Chinese society,” the late Chinese dissident and intellectual Fang Lizhi once wrote.

What is happening in Hong Kong may be the first steps of a similar effort to first recast and then memory-hole anti-government unrest. Already, the city has adopted new standards on “patriotic education,” which emphasize the need to “safeguard national security” and inculcate a sense of national identity, including through mandatory flag-raising ceremonies at schools and universities.

One recently published textbook for high school students states that in 2019, “some radicals colluded with external forces and challenged the authority of the Central Authorities,” and “external forces intensified their interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, bringing impacts to Hong Kong’s human rights, democracy and rule of law.”

Open this photo in gallery:An exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum of History showing newspaper front pages reporting the territory's handover to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.

A display at the Hong Kong pop-up exhibit honours the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.James Griffiths/The Globe and Mail

Even the distant past has been roped into this effort. A pop-up exhibit showcasing “The Hong Kong Story” at the city’s history museum emphasizes that Hong Kong has been “part of southern China since the ancient times,” and notes various ethnic groups in the city came from “parts of the mainland.”

Mr. Ngo, the historian, said this was designed “to support the idea that Hong Kongers have no right to decide what happens in Hong Kong, because it was always part of China.”

When he was growing up in the 1990s, Mr. Ngo said, textbooks did refer to “unequal treaties” between the British and Qing empires, an interpretation used by the Communist Party in arguing Hong Kong was an unceded occupied territory and not owed the same right to self-determination that other colonies were given in the late 20th century.

“So it’s not that overnight they started to promote dubious readings of history. Those have been there for a long time, but there used to be limits,” Mr. Ngo said. “I think those limits are basically all gone now.”

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