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Thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park to mark the anniversary of the military crackdown on a pro-democracy student movement in Beijing on June 4, 2019.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Authorities in Hong Kong have pledged to dispatch thousands of police to clear streets of people seeking to commemorate the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square, as Beijing stages new efforts to scrub away memories of bloodshed.

In Hong Kong, people were warned they could be arrested for wearing black in parts of the city, and police said they would have up to 7,000 officers at the ready – nearly a quarter of the entire force – to prevent memorial gatherings. Local leaders have warned that it could be illegal to utter phrases like “end one-party rule” and “bring democracy to China.” Hygiene inspectors shut down a museum that honours the victims.

Online, meanwhile, disinformation researchers tracked a surge in posts casting doubt on the events of June 4, 1989, when tanks and soldiers crushed a student-led protest movement at Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds if not thousands. A flurry of posts, many from what appear to be fake accounts, sought to use the violent protests in Hong Kong over the past few years to justify the Chinese action three decades ago.

“Occupy Central and the violence at Mong Kok only made Hong Kong people more sober,” said one post circulating on Facebook Thursday. Then, looking back to 1989: “If the Chinese government hadn’t dealt with it that decisively, the wildfire would have been uncontrollable and a divided China would not have been prosperous and full of hope the way it is today.”

Hong Kong bans Tiananmen vigil for second straight year, citing COVID-19 restrictions

As Beijing tightens its grip, Hong Kong becomes a fading attraction

On the ground and in cyberspace, the response to the June 4 memorial this year reveals an intensifying effort to wipe away commemoration not just from China – where mothers of students killed at Tiananmen are regularly rounded up by police in advance of the anniversary – but also far beyond Chinese borders. The online disinformation, amplified by more than 10,000 Facebook fan pages, groups and verified accounts, appear directed at overseas Chinese, said Yun-Ju Chen, a researcher with Doublethink Lab in Taiwan. It bears the characteristics of “systematic spread of information,” she said. “They want to downplay or deny that the incident even happened.”

Open this photo in gallery:

This combination of images taken between 1997 and 2020 shows the thousands of people who attended the June 4th candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park to mark the anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown on a pro-democracy student movement in Beijing. Top row from left; 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. Second row from left; 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Third row from left; 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Bottom row from left; 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.The Associated Press

The police determination to halt any overt sign of commemoration in Hong Kong suggests an effort to prevent memorial images from being taken on Chinese soil and circulated around the world, said Mak Hoi-wah, a politician and activist who has been one of the chief backers of the June 4th Museum that was forced to close this week. “They are trying to make people forget and prevent people from gathering together so no pictures will be taken of them,” he said.

”The goal is to suppress any expressions of the mourning of the death of June 4.”

For 30 years, Hong Kong’s annual candlelight ceremony at Victoria Park was a sombre reminder of the lives lost around Tiananmen Square. The meaning of the hushed vigil, which often drew hundreds of thousands, was magnified by it taking place on Chinese soil.

Last year, for the first time, police denied a permit to host the vigil, citing COVID-19. Many hundreds came nonetheless. In the 12 months since, Hong Kong has been transformed by Beijing’s imposition of a National Security Law that has been used to curb political liberties. Legislators have been barred from running for office, democracy activists jailed and district councillors pushed to resign in large numbers after they were required to take an oath of allegiance to China. Beijing has taken a stronger command of who can be voted into office, what can be taught in schools and what can be reported by local media.

The tightening grasp on Hong Kong has not, however, succeeded in stifling dissent. Across the city this week, shop owners, artists and religious leaders found ways to demonstrate remembrance. One bookstore placed China titles on sale for 64 and 89 Hong Kong dollars, after the numeric dates for June 4, 1989. An artist posted images of “64” written on light switches, and suggested others do the same. A designer offered up his drawing of a black rectangle on a white T-shirt as a way of skirting the prohibition on black tops. A restaurant placed candles in boxes with a handwritten note saying, “We’ve got the wrong products so we are giving these away, please help yourself.”

Similar efforts emerged online, with Hong Kongers posting memorial videos on Dropbox and images of flickering candles on Facebook. But those images competed with a flow of what Ms. Chen called misinformation. One suggested the real victims in 1989 were the People’s Liberation Army. “64 Truth,” it said. “The PLA was brutally stoned, beaten up and burned to death.”

It has now been 32 years since the killings and such messages, she said, seem to be designed for younger audiences. With no personal memories of what happened, it is those people who may be susceptible to messages, with the propaganda “convincing them little by little that this is not important,” she said.

Still, even though authorities banned the outdoor vigil, several Catholic churches planned special Friday Mass services – saying Hong Kong continues to guarantee freedom of religion – which they advertised with banners denouncing “cults.” Mr. Mak intends to attend a church service Friday, “to mourn the deaths,” he said. He held hope that memories would not fade.

“As long as people have in their hearts that we are concerned about the June 4 movement, there will be light,” he said.

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