More than 300 Hong Kongers on Friday defied police warnings and took part in vigils to mourn lives lost in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre despite government suppression of events to mark the 32nd anniversary.

The move to stamp out the annual candlelight vigil is seen as symbolic of the erosion of Hong Kong’s civil and political freedoms since Beijing imposed a new security law on the city. It had been the only place in Communist party-ruled China to mark the Tiananmen anniversary.

A Hong Kong barrister involved in organising the vigil was arrested on Friday, outside her office building. Chow Hang-tung had vowed to go ahead with the event after authorities cancelled it, citing social distancing rules associated with Covid-19.

Hong Kong police confirmed they had arrested two people for advertising or publicising an unauthorised assembly. The identity of the second person was not immediately available.

Chow, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the vigil, told the Financial Times this week: “Nowadays the risk of any sort of political participation is very high, [the authorities] are controlling people with fear.”

Police had warned people could face jail sentences of five years if they participated in Friday’s events.

The authorities refused to say whether slogans traditionally spoken at the vigil were in breach of the national security law, which carries penalties of up to life in prison for crimes such as subversion.

Beijing introduced the law almost a year ago, sparking a wider crackdown on civil society, education and the media.

Critics argued the intervention eroded the autonomy and freedom of expression promised to Hong Kongers by China under the “one country, two systems” model during the 1997 handover from the UK.

Authorities deployed officers to guard “high-risk” protest areas and sealed off part of Victoria Park, on Hong Kong island, where the vigil is traditionally held.

“The continuous annual commemoration was a key indicator that Hong Kong still enjoys liberty that mainland China does not. Now it is no longer tolerated,” said Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied protests in China.

He said the cancellation was a milestone in the process of “homogenisation” of the political environment between Hong Kong and the mainland. “The implication of all this to China is that China’s confrontational stance toward the world is more entrenched.”

On the footpaths and streets surrounding Victoria Park, and in other districts, Hong Kongers shined torch lights, burnt mini candles or showed pictures of burning candles on their mobile phones at the time of the planned vigil.

“We are not just remembering 1989, we are also here to show we are still fighting,” a 43-year-old art teacher told the Financial Times. “[There are] people in jail, if I did not come out I would be ashamed.”

Earlier in the evening in nearby Causeway Bay, a busy shopping district, two groups of pro-democracy activists set up street stalls, one showing footage of the 1989 protests in Beijing. A 52-year-old teacher playing songs dedicated to June 4 came to the park with her former student. “As a Chinese person, this is the very least we can do to show our loving care for the family members of those who died,” she said. People also shone phone lights in various districts in Kowloon and the New Territories.