Beijing Learns from Tiananmen Square: Hong Kong protests continue to simmer

The student-led democracy protests in Hong Kong continue to cause disruption and provide a headache for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the world watches on with interest.

Thousands rally on the streets of Hong Kong
Thousands rally on the streets of Hong Kong

Riled by the CCP’s reneging on an agreement to allow Hong Kong to select its next leader – whilst there will be a democratic vote in the 2017 election, all the candidates have been selected by Beijing – a variety of interconnected movements have embarked on the most sustained pro-democracy protests in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It is unlikely, however, that the Hong Kong protests will end in a bloodbath similar to that seen in the Chinese capital in June 1989.

Firstly, Hong Kong has a democratic tradition dating from its days as a British colony, a tradition Beijing reluctantly accepts. Whereas the Tiananmen Square protests engendered a direct challenge to the Chinese political system, the Hong Kong situation is simply an extension of typical resistance to the impositions placed upon the province by Beijing. For instance, pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong hold candlelit vigils for the victims of Tiananmen Square on the 4th June each year.

Candlelit vigil for the Tiananmen victims in Victoria Park
Candlelit vigil for the Tiananmen victims in Victoria Park

Secondly, the Hong Kong press has much greater freedom than its mainland Chinese counterpart. Whilst there have been efforts to restrict freedom of speech in Hong Kong, several liberal newspapers openly publish articles lamenting the transgressions of the central government. Chinese state media was unable to cover-up the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, the government at least used the press to justify the crackdown on the protesters to Chinese citizens, helping to prevent further eruptions of popular protest.

Thirdly, the economic consequences of the Hong Kong protests are not particularly damaging to Beijing. In 1989 China was beginning to feel the positive affects of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Foreign direct investment was beginning to flow into the country, eventually allowing China to become the greatest manufacturing centre in the world. The trauma caused by the Tiananmen Square protests threatened to scare away foreign investment and helped encourage the drastic response carried out by the CCP and the PLA.

China's economic revival was thrown into doubt by the vicious government response to the Tiananmen Square protests
China’s economic revival was thrown into doubt by the vicious government response to the Tiananmen Square protests

Hong Kong has a far more autonomous economy than most of China’s individual states. Striking, public disorder and violence will largely damage the financial prospects of people in Hong Kong. Beijing has enough patrons within the Hong Kong business community to ensure that those that fail to tow the party line will miss out on lucrative contracts. Employers will be scrambling to drag any of their employees in the midst of the protesters back to work to avoid future retribution against their companies.

The Hong Kong demonstrations are a test of Beijing’s confidence. So far, the CCP has responded with a media campaign and carefully-crafted rhetoric, almost feigning indifference. Whatever the differences, the Tinanmen Square massacre has taught Beijing the importance of a measured response.

Whilst the Hong Kong issue is by no means settled, it is likely that these latest protests will gradually fizzle out as people realise that Beijing will not bite and that they are better off ensuring their economic well-being rather than pursuing a political dream that the Tiananmen Square protests showed was not yet possible.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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