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.
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.
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.
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?
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.