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At banned Tiananmen vigil, Hong Kong protesters rally for their freedoms

Thousands of people turned out in Hong Kong to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the brutal crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, defying a ban demonstrating during the pandemic. Their aim? To rally against China's moves to impose its legal will in the semi-autonomous region with a strict new national security law. Special correspondent Divya Gopalan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to Hong Kong, where thousands turned out, in defiance of a city ban today, to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the brutal 1989 crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

    But as special correspondent Divya Gopalan reports, today, they protested against China's moves to impose its legal will in the semiautonomous region.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Over the years, this candlelight vigil has become a symbol of Hong Kong's political freedoms, setting the city apart from the rest of China, where the events of June 4 are not spoken about publicly.

  • Woman:

    We just want to be seen, our voice to be heard.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Police refused permission for this year's rally, due to social distancing restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Nathan Law:

    Losing the candlelight on June 4 is such a great reminder for the people that we need to safeguard our freedom.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Last year, tens of thousands of people gathered in Victoria Park, not just to remember, but to protest a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong suspects to be tried in mainland China.

    The law was shelved, but not before it ignited six months of anti-government and often violent protests. It's the reason the Chinese government is now bypassing the city's legislature to rush through a strict new national security law.

  • Martin Lee:

    When that law is passed in a few months' time in Beijing, we will not be able to hold that candlelight vigil. Otherwise, we would be all committing criminal offenses.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Former legislative council member Martin Lee organized the inaugural vigil in 1990. He is one of the architects of Hong Kong's constitution, and known as the father of democracy here.

    The 81-year-old is on trial for taking part in an unauthorized protest last year. But he says the worst is yet to come with Beijing's tightening control.

    Hong Kong's constitution states it is up to the local government to enact the law after the handover in 1997.

    Former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung says Beijing has run out of patience.

  • Elsie Leung:

    Every country needs legislation to prevent, stop and punish acts which endanger national security.

    For 23 years, we have failed to do that. And the likelihood of Hong Kong passing such law is rather dim. So it's only natural that the Central People's Government will have take on its own hand.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Beijing's proposed legislation authorizes the mainland government's national security agencies to set up branches and enforce related laws in Hong Kong.

    It's a chilling prospect, particularly for those on the front lines of Hong Kong's democratic movement. In mainland China, these agencies often silence any form of dissent or opposition.

  • Man:

    This is the end of Hong Kong.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Hong Kong's government has been in turmoil over a law that will now criminalize anyone who disrespects the Chinese national anthem. That was coincidentally passed today.

    Legislative councillor Dennis Kwok says it's yet another infringement on freedom of speech and the city is under threat of becoming a policed state.

  • Dennis Kwok:

    The concept of endangering national security in mainland China is very broad. It could be economical. It could be financial. It could education. It could be in relation to the Internet or things you say to your friends in private messaging apps.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Last Friday, President Trump denounced Beijing's move and began a process that would remove exemptions that treat Hong Kong differently than the mainland, a move that could diminish Hong Kong's standing as a global financial center.

    Among the thousands of international firms here, there are 1,300 American companies.

    Tara Joseph is with the American Chamber of Commerce:

  • Tara Joseph:

    There is a nagging worry that Hong Kong won't be the type of place to have a corporate headquarters anymore, and the risks are definitely rising.

    So there will be backup plans being made.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    But pro-Beijing legislator Michael Tien, who voted to enact the national security law at last month's Communist Party National People's Congress in Beijing, says it will help local businesses.

  • Michael Tien:

    Everybody feels positive about this bill, because the one thing this bill guarantee is restoring Hong Kong to stability and some calmness.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    China accused the U.S. of interference in its domestic affairs after American politicians expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters and condemned Beijing for its crackdown on the protests. And now Beijing is turning the tables, comparing the unrest in the U.S. to the Hong Kong protests and democracy movement.

    State media is giving blanket coverage, telling its audience this is what democracy looks like.

    What Beijing labels foreign interference was one reason cited for the security law.

  • Michael Tien:

    Hong Kong is getting out of control. We have our legislator going to a foreign government, which is the United States of America, asking them to have sanctions against Hong Kong to put pressure on our motherland.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Over the past few months, tensions between China and the U.S. have been rising, and Hong Kong has been caught in the middle.

    It's a familiar place for the city which tries to uphold Democratic ideals with communist China at its doorstep.

    People here have defied the ban on this gathering. They have even jumped over barricades to come to the same spot where the vigil is held every year. But this year, instead of just remembering the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, they're chanting protest slogans and even calling for independence.

    With the looming national security law, it was a moment for those at the vigil to demonstrate their freedoms and rights. And the show of solidarity as candles illuminated memorials and commemorations across the city stands as a reminder of the people's determination to preserve their way of life.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Divya Gopalan in Hong Kong.

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