Hong Kong police rejected an application Monday by organizers for an annual candlelight vigil marking the anniversary this week of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, as residents rushed to apply for passports that could allow them to move to the United Kingdom
It would be the first time in 30 years that the vigil, which draws a huge crowd to an outdoor space, is not held in Hong Kong. The vigil commemorates China's deadly military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The decision follows a vote by China’s ceremonial parliament to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and enact national security legislation for the semi-autonomous territory. Democracy activists and many legal experts worry that the law could curtail free speech and opposition political activities.
Throngs of people lined up on Monday at DHL courier outlets across the city, many to send documents to the U.K. to apply for or renew what is known as a British National (Overseas) passport.
“My BNO passport expired in 2004, but at the time I didn’t renew it because I trusted China,” said 40-year-old Peter Chan, who works in asset management and waited in line for more than two hours.
Chan said he was worried about political and security issues in Hong Kong stemming from the national security law as well as a push by the territory’s legislature to enact a bill that would make it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem.
Even though there is rising anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiment in the U.K., “it’s still better than Hong Kong,” he said.
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“In Hong Kong, you never know what will happen tomorrow,” Chan said.
The police, in a letter to organizers of the candlelight vigil, said it would violate coronavirus social distancing rules that ban gatherings of more than eight people.
Organizer Lee Cheuk-yan, chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, expressed disappointment and urged people to light candles individually and observe a moment of silence.
Amnesty International said authorities should facilitate a socially distanced vigil rather than ban it.
“COVID-19 must not be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression," said Joshua Rosenzweig, the group's deputy director for East and Southeast Asia. “With this ban, and a disastrous national security law looming, it is not clear if Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigil will ever be allowed to take place again.”
Hong Kong has reported five local infections of the coronavirus in the last two days, breaking a nearly two-week streak of no new cases outside of those brought in from abroad.
The rush to apply for passports came after Britain said last week that it might allow holders of the document to stay in the country for a year or more. The proposal came after China’s legislature decided it would enact a national security law for Hong Kong.
The move is aimed at clamping down on a pro-democracy movement that has at times resulted in violent clashes between protesters and the police. Critics say the law erodes the “one country, two systems” framework that promised Hong Kong freedoms not found in mainland China for 50 years.
Protesters demonstrated against the security law at lunchtime Monday at a luxury shopping mall in the Central business district, shouting pro-democracy slogans.
The British National (Overseas) passport, which was issued to Hong Kongers when it was a British colony, allows them to visit the country for an extended period but falls short of offering them citizenship rights.
Currently, BNO passport holders can remain in the U.K. as visitors for six months without a visa. But Britain’s plan to allow them to stay in the U.K. for a longer period could include options that offer a path to citizenship, according to British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
In Hong Kong's eastern district of Quarry Bay, Vanessa Tai was among more than 40 people who stood in line at a DHL service point, many holding envelopes with application documents.
Tai, 24, said the BNO passport is a Plan B for Hong Kongers who are worried about losing their freedoms as China strengthens its control over the city.
“If I had a choice, I’d rather work and live in Hong Kong. I hadn’t considered emigrating or working overseas before this,” she said. “Nowadays, my family and I are seeking an alternative, just in case.”
As of February, nearly 350,000 Hong Kong residents held BNO passports, although the U.K. government estimated that there are 2.9 million people in the city of 7.5 million who are eligible for the passport.