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

Japan’s Historical Amnesia: the Uncomfortable Void of World War Two

There are numerous reasons to visit Japan; the culture, the temples, the food, the scenery, the people. Of course, there is also the fascinating history and, prior to travelling there, I was intrigued about how one particular period would be remembered.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

Japan’s role in World War Two (WWII) needs little introduction. An opportunistic aggressor, the Imperial Army rampaged through Southeast Asia, upsetting British colonial forces at every step. The attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 stunned the world and the invasion, and subsequent occupation, of China and Korea made the Japanese synonymous with barbarism.

Article 9 of Japan’s American-constructed post-WWII constitution renounces the right to wage war.  Despite some revisionist calls, it is still generally accepted by the vast majority of the population, perhaps a tacit understanding that this is a just punishment for wartime aggression.

Visit museums and other cultural centres in Japan itself, however, and there is little discussion of such painful memories. The pre-occupation is, somewhat understandably, with the devastation of the atomic bombs and their deadly aftermath. The peace museums at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively convey the numbing annihilation. It is hard to catch your breath walking past exhibits of fire-shredded clothing, molten glass and steel, the harrowing images of unimaginable injuries and the desolate moonscape of the razed cities.

No wonder that the Japanese are among the most pacifistic nations in the world. They have seen the worst of war. But unlike the Germans, who acknowledge the crimes of WWII with open public monuments such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Japanese internalise their shame.

Officially the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

Even at Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is limited discussion of why the Allies decided to deploy the atomic bombs, even if there is no suggestion that it was an act of unprovoked aggression. At the Museum of History in Osaka, on the other hand, WWII is barely mentioned. This vitally-important industrial city was reduced to ruins by Allied bombings. Yet a single exhibit of an American incendiary bomb is the only indication that something happened between the years of 1931 and 1945, a period glossed over as ’15 years of war’.

Osaka after the bombing; reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Most astonishing, however, is the Yushukan Museum at the notorious Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Housing an impressive collection of personal possessions and paraphernalia relating to the country’s military past, the narrative (at least in English) absolves Japan of any responsibility for WWII (or other wars for that matter). The invasion of China was caused by local nationalists, the assault on the Pacific a few years later was necessary because of Britain and America’s monopolisation of the region’s natural resources. How could Japan survive without a patriotic assault on its ‘inferior’ neighbours?

Yasukuni Shrine was built in the 19th century to commemorate Japan’s war dead. In addition to thousands of ‘innocents’, it enshrines convicted war criminals, including Japan’s wartime leader Hideki Tojo. As such, it is a nationalist bastion amidst the traditional sea of pacifism. Whenever a Japanese politician visits the Shrine, China and Korea go up in arms. I had never previously understood this response from afar. Could they not let sleeping dogs lie? Well no…not if a museum of such prominence denies any complicity in these countries’ darkest hours.

Entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

I have never been an advocate for eternal shame. I do not believe that a country’s politicians should continually apologise for their predecessors’ actions. This does not allow progress.

But to not acknowledge misdeeds, to fail to offer any comprehensive statement of remorse, to engage in school textbook revisionism more reminiscent of a dictatorship than a leading democracy, naturally invites criticism. The Jewish Museum in Munich does not shy away from the Nazi-inspired Holocaust. I encountered no such open dialogue of the ‘Rape of Nanking’, the ‘Bataan Death March’ or Unit 731 in Japan.

Japanese propaganda vans driving through Ueno, Tokyo

It is often said that the Japanese people harbour a collective ‘war guilt’ that has dictated the country’s post-war development (i.e. a focus on economic development over international engagement). There is no reason why this sentiment should be maintained in perpetuity. Indeed, as very real threats emerge on Japan’s periphery, namely a rising China and a nuclearised North Korea, the country must change its outlook.

In order to satisfy its former enemies (and allies) that a Japanese re-engagement with the world is a positive development then surely a more public introspection of its wartime past is first necessary?  For all the horrors of the atomic bombings, Japan’s actions in the preceding years made this tragic conclusion almost inevitable. After decades of silence, it will now take a bold step to concede this reality.

A warship in port at Nagasaki: the Japanese military still retains a muted role in global affairs

P.S. I should add that the above does not detract from the unbounded pleasure of visiting Japan and meeting its people.