Students at a Hong Kong university have hidden tiny figurines of a “democracy goddess” around campus in the lead-up to Saturday’s anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The anonymous acts defy the authorities’ increasing crackdown on public recognition of the highly sensitive incident.
Until recently, Hong Kong was one of the few Chinese territories which commemorated the June 4 1989 event.
Public vigils were held each year.
However Beijing has now effectively banned the city’s annual gathering and shut down Hong Kong’s Tiananmen museum.
Police in Hong Kong have closed off large parts of Victoria Park, which in the past was the site of large candlelit vigils marking the anniversary of the massacre.
Officials have warned that any unauthorised assembly could see demonstrators facing prison sentences.
These actions have been seen by activists as part of China’s broader agenda to snuff out political dissent in Hong Kong.
The United States has called the ban on gatherings “an attempt to suppress the memories of that day”.
“To the people of China and to those who continue to stand against injustice and seek freedom, we will not forget June 4,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing became the focus for national demonstrations calling for greater political freedoms in 1989. Thousands of people – mainly students – camped for weeks in the square before the military moved in on 4 June and opened fire.
The Chinese government says 200 civilians and several dozen security personnel died. Other estimates have ranged from hundreds to as many as 10,000.
The figurines created by students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) are a copy of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue which was pulled down by university officials last December.
The statue had been a fixture on the campus for 11 years, and was modelled after the original democracy symbol paraded by students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 before they were killed by soldiers.
It was removed last year as other universities tore down Tiananmen Square tributes including the “Pillar of Shame” memorial at Hong Kong University.
“This is a kind of a rebellion. The university ‘stole’ the statue from its students so we’ve decided to make our own versions on it and put it back,” one of the protest organisers told Hong Kong Free Press, a local outlet.
Protesters have printed tiny 3D replicas of the statue, and concealed them on campus for other students to find. Attached are notes urging the finder to “bring her home, and do not forget the meaning behind it!”
“Manneoi was born to remember the Chinese martyrs so we picked the days before June 4,” one of the organisers told the BBC, using the Cantonese name for the “Goddess of Democracy”.
They said they were told by other students to “be careful” but they felt “ok” regarding their treasure hunt: “It’s not a public assembly or protest”.
“It is sad for us to consider the risks as assembly should be our basic human right.”
The organiser said they wanted people who found the statues to “guard our memories” and “don’t be so depressed because there are still people who haven’t given up”.
But in the end, organisers ended the activity as they were “afraid the university would interrupt our event”.
They said they had received word that university staff were monitoring students taking part in the hunt.
China’s erasure of public displays of June Fourth – as the Tiananmen anniversary is popularly known in Chinese – has become near total in Hong Kong since Beijing enacted a national security law on the island in 2020.
In the past year, local police prosecuted at least 26 pro-democracy activists for trying to commemorate June Fourth. They include Joshua Wong, media baron Jimmy Lai and former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, and Andrew Wan.
They were all found guilty for attending or “inciting” others to participate in a vigil honouring the massacre victims in 2020, with some facing jail terms of up to 14 months.
In January this year, a Hong Kong court also sentenced activist Chow Hang-tung to 15 months in prison for her role leading to the banned 2021 vigil. Ms Chow had already been served a 12-month sentence for her role in the previous year’s vigil.
Last year, prior to her arrest, she told the BBC she urged locals to pay tribute by lighting a candle on the anniversary or shining their phone flashlights at home.
Outside of China, diasporas around the world including in Taiwan, the UK, US, Canada and Australia are planning commemorations.