Police fire pepper spray at demonstrators during Tiananmen Square memorial

Police officers fired pepper spray at a crowd of Hong Kong demonstrators at a Tiananmen Square memorial, after protesters defied police orders Thursday, according to Reuters.

Chinese authorities citied coronavirus threats and banned the annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — where over a million people gathered to demand democratic values in China before being fired upon by the Chinese military. It is unknown how many people died but estimates range from hundreds to thousands.

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“The ban comes amid an alarming acceleration of attacks on the autonomy of Hong Kong and the undermining of the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people guaranteed under Hong Kong and international law,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China said in a statement.

After years-long pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous city, Hong Kong passed legislation Thursday criminalizing disrespect of China’s national anthem, which critics say infringes on their freedom of expression.

Thousands of people reportedly broke through police barriers to hold a candlelight vigil as security officials played recorded warnings, telling people not to gather in unauthorized group settings.

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Demonstrators recognized a minute of silence at 8:09 p.m. and chanted “Democracy now” and “Stand for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Clashes broke out between demonstrators and police officers as some protesters tried to set up roadblocks with metal barriers, resulting in police firing pepper spray at them, as reported by Reuters.

Thursday marks the first non-peaceful Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong, in 30 years.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Chinese and Hong Kong authorities for banning the vigil.

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“It starts; so soon,” Pompeo tweeted earlier this week. “For the first time in 30 years, Hong Kong authorities denied permission to hold the #TiananmenVigil. If there is any doubt about Beijing’s intent, it is to deny Hong Kongers a voice and a choice, making them the same as mainlanders. So much for two systems.”

Zhao Lijian, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, responded to the criticism and said, “We urge the U.S. to abandon ideological prejudice, correct mistakes and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs in any form.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.