Echoes of Tiananmen Square: Hong Kong Protests Test CCP Resolve

Thirty years after the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government faces another serious democratic challenge. Rather than affecting the capital Beijing, or even the mainland for that matter, this latest threat has arisen in Hong Kong. Police officials in the former British territory are warning that the rule of law is now on the ‘brink of total collapse’ after five months of demonstrations.

Protesters have marched along main streets in masks and set-up roadblocks

There are similarities in the origins and development of the Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong protests. In 1989, rapid economic development was creating a rapidly changing society in China, without any accompanying political representation for the people. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was paramount, corruption was rife and any dissent stifled. In Hong Kong, a province returned to China by Britain in 1997, a sense of political regression has overtaken the minds of many citizens accustomed to a greater degree of autonomy than on the mainland.

The concept of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ that the CCP has espoused since the return of Hong Kong has been steadily eroded, with freedom of expression and of the press increasingly undermined in the Xi Jinping era. There is little doubt amongst many of the protesters; China wants to subsume Hong Kong entirely and the 2019 outburst builds upon the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution of 2014.

Many leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution were imprisoned

Whilst murmurings of discontent were audible for months, or even years, before the two protests, a single event helped trigger a spillover into the streets. In 1989 it was the death of Hu Yaobang, widely seen as a pro-reform former General Secretary of the CCP. His ousting from his role in 1987 had angered followers and his funeral drew 100,000 supporters to the streets who demanded that his legacy be upheld.

In Hong Kong, a proposal to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland was perceived as a direct attack on democracy and precipitated the first large-scale protests since 2014. It has since been scrapped by the government, a decision made too late to reverse the zeitgeist.

In both cases, students have been at the forefront of the calls for change. In both cases, resentment of political reform (too slow for the Tiananmen Square protesters and in the wrong direction for those in Hong Kong) mutated into demands for a democratic revolution. The international media has dedicated hours of coverage and thousands of column inches to the Hong Kong protests, as with Tiananmen. In both instances, many members of the international community have refrained from outright condemnation of the Chinese response, whilst remaining expectant and desirous of political upheaval in Beijing.

Student protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989

Perhaps most significant, and a question that as yet remains unanswered, is whether the Hong Kong protests will end the same way as Tiananmen. After a month of huge gatherings in the capital, and numerous other demonstrations across the country, June 1989 saw an open massacre in front of the world’s cameras.

Tensions are being raised in Hong Kong and protesters have died, some in cold blood. But they have died at the hands of the police and counter-protesters, not the military which, despite some veiled threats, has remained conspicuously absent from the island. At what point, if any, will Beijing deem such a drastic scenario as mobilising the People’s Liberation Army necessary?

A protester is shot with a live round by a member of the Hong Kong police

One thing about the aftermath of 1989 is likely to be repeated in Hong Kong, whenever the situation finally cools. The CCP will not change course, particularly under Xi. Economic stagnation may be on the horizon but despite the Hong Kong inferno there are no reports of mass protests anywhere on the mainland. As long as the illusion of prosperity continues to beckon for the masses, Xi and his quasi-Maoist personality cult will charge forth. What China’s neighbours and global competitors think of the whole thing is irrelevant to the President.

The CCP’s resolve is undoubtedly being tested in Hong Kong. Yet unlike with Tiananmen Square, Beijing will still see this as a localised threat, albeit one that cannot be allowed to spread like wildfire. The ability to restrict access to information in a manner even George Orwell could never have predicted aids Xi’s case and it may just be that the CCP eases back on its aim of drawing Hong Kong fully into the compliant Chinese fold.

More trying days lie ahead both for the protesters and the Party. However, don’t expect any tanks rumbling down the streets of Hong Kong just yet. Beijing learnt at least one invaluable lesson from 1989.

The iconic image of 1989

Nazi Emergency Declared in Dresden: a shuddering call for a wounded city

Councillors in the east German city of Dresden have taken the unprecedented step of declaring a ‘Nazinotstand’ (Nazi Emergency) after the increase in far right-wing sentiment and activity means that ‘open democratic society is threatened’.

Dresden has become accustomed to witnessing far-right protests

Whilst the resolution of the city council is likely to have little significant affect on policy, its symbolic impact is undeniable given Germany’s recent fascist past. Indeed, the thought of the far-right being on the march once more through Europe’s biggest economy is likely to send shockwaves across the continent.

Saxony – the state in which Dresden resides – and neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt lie at the centre of the German right-wing resurgence. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which sits far to the right of the political centre, polled heavily here in the 2017 elections, taking around a quarter of the vote. This helped the AfD to 94 seats in the Bundestag, making it the third largest party in parliament.

The 2017 Federal elections saw an historic upsurge in AfD support

Running on an ultranationalist, anti-Islamic platform, the AfD has harnessed the popularity of the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) movement in the region, which sprung into life during Angela Merkel’s ‘open-door’ policy towards the Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in 2014-2015.

PEGIDA rallies in Dresden have drawn thousands of supporters, many of whom have done little to distance themselves from accusations that they are little more than a quasi-Nazi conglomerate. Given that Dresden has also traditionally been a stronghold of the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), there certainly seems to be some justification in the council’s ruling, however drastic the terminology of its declaration.

PEGIDA rallies have not been confined to Germany

Clearly there is an issue with the city addressing both its past and present. Whereas the official line for much of Germany in recent years has been to shown contrition for the actions of their Nazi predecessors, and take pains to demonstrate a repulsion of right-wing politics, this is not a stance that is accepted wholesale across the country.

Complicating matters further in Saxony is another historical event whose 75th anniversary is fast approaching: the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Over the course of four raids between the 13th and 15th of that month, British and American heavy bombers dropped 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Dresden, destroying more than 90% of the city centre and killing an estimated 25,000 civilians (the number may be higher).

The bombing of Dresden led to a huge firestorm which gutted the city

The bombing of Dresden has remained a hugely controversial episode of World War Two. In some quarters, the destruction of this ‘cultural’ and ‘historical’ city is the ultimate example of Allied excess at a time when German defeat seemed inevitable. As with the deployment of the atomic bombs on Japan, however, others have argued that such decisive action was necessary to shorten the war. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the chief of Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command at the time, certainly subscribed to this view, whilst also asserting Dresden’s strategic importance as a transport hub and centre of munitions manufacturing. Winston Churchill vacillated between defending the bombing and distancing himself from the carnage it wrought.

For some Dresden natives, there has never been a sufficient apology for the firestorms of February 1945. Whilst Germans are supposed to feel an eternal guilt for their silent complicity with the Nazi murder machine, no such pressure is brought upon the governments of the UK or America to atone for ‘the bombing holocaust’ as the far-right sees it. For some, the ‘invisible’ crimes of the Nazis pale into insignificance compared to the very visible consequences of the Dresden bombings.

More than 7 years after the bombings, the scars on the landscape were still clear to see

A sense of historical unfairness, coupled with the common concerns of economic and social security in the midst of a changing ethnic and political landscape, is dividing Dresden. The actions of the council will not have been taken lightly, for they risk further inflaming right-wing tensions and distancing a large minority in the city from their political representatives.

Whatever your political persuasion, to be called a Nazi in modern Germany is to be an outcast. Yet with the resurgence of the political right, and calls for a revisionist view of German history, how long this will remain to be true is hard to say.