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

Re-Education Through Labour: China’s Uighur Internment Camps

“The government didn’t give up on me. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation and education.”

“In China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains…In the end, all the officials had one key point. The greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture.”

It is reported that dozens of new ‘re-education’ centres have recently been opened in Xinjiang

Opposed musings, yet both of these men were inmates at the same facility. It is the latest move by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to provoke international criticism and controversy; a series of ‘re-education’ centres to house Uighur ‘extremists’ in China’s restive north-western province of Xinjiang.

The Uighurs are a Turkic people with a greater historical affiliation with Central Asia than with China. Unrest in Xinjiang – one of China’s autonomous regions – has grown in recent years, as the CCP has sought to upset the ethnic balance by encouraging a mass wave of Han immigration.

For the CCP it’s simple; the ‘re-education’ centres are turning Uighur men and women away from a path of Islamic extremist separatism towards one of Communist Chinese integration. At the same time, they are provided with food and comfort, withdrawing the privations that lead these people to listen to dangerous propaganda in the first place.

For many Uighurs, on the other hand, the camps are a systematised attempt to destroy their culture and force their loyalty to the CCP and the dominant Han.

Two ethnic Uighur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen standing guard outside the Grand Bazaar in the Uighur district of the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang

The designation’re-education centre’ is only a very short leap from the ‘re-education through labour’ policy that persisted throughout the Mao era.

Almost everyone, from petty criminals, to drug addicts, to prostitutes, to political dissidents, wound up in forced labour camps across China’s rural provinces from the 1950s onwards. Here they underwent an intense programme of communist indoctrination, interspersed with back-breaking work on farms and in factories. These ‘undesirables’ were rarely given a trial, an accusation made by some former Uighur internees held in the Xinjiang camps.

Forced labour in Mao’s China. The policy formally persisted for decades after his death

People were forced into ‘schools’ where Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ would become the only other constant in a life of misery:

The schools were not concentration camps or gulags, but they were isolated places of detention where the inmates had restricted freedom and had to do hard labour under strict supervision. Because every cultivable area in China is densely populated, only in arid or mountainous areas was there space to contain the exiles from the cities. The inmates were supposed to produce food and be self-supporting. Although they were still paid salaries, there was little for them to buy. Life was very harsh. (Chang, 2004, pp. 479-80)

This description – from the renowned author Jung Chang describing the fate of her parents in Mao’s China – is strikingly similar to the reports coming out of Xinjiang.

In short, it appears that Xi Jinping has relaunched a banner Maoist policy in a very targeted manner. It adds further credence to the idea that Xi wishes to emulate the unquestioned allegiance that the Chairman once commanded from his population, often through brute force and murderous repression.

Mao’s Little Red Book: it has become synonymous with his personality cult and repressive rule, something Xi Jinping seeks to emulate

The CCP’s determined grip on almost every avenue of information dissemination has helped skew the Xinjiang story. Undoubtedly there are extremist elements amongst the Uighurs and it’s likely that the majority of the Uighur people would prefer a separate state.

Yet the one-sided media coverage that persists in China, and the CCP’s ability to shield its worst excesses from the outside world, portrays a region under constant siege. ‘Counter-terrorism’ – a favoured buzzword in the West – is readily used to justify ethnic crackdowns. The ‘re-education’ centres are just one element of this.

The international community has given a typically muted response. Harsh words and threats of sanctions are nothing new for the CCP. If that is what the party has to endure to enable a free pass on another flagrant violation of human rights, then so be it.

Unfortunately, China has proved itself rather good at suppressing dissent and undermining minority groups. Forced labour, internment without trial and extra-judicial kidnappings are standard practice, honed over the years. Those who wish to avoid such punishment stifle their grumbles in order to live a quiet life. As long as the Communist state continues to offer them the illusion of development, this cycle will continue.

Of course, things can change and the Xinjiang camps may only further radicalise those young men and women most likely to carry out domestic acts of terror.

The aftermath of a terrorist attack carried out by Uighur separatists in Urumqi. The CCP has used such incidents as an excuse for an ethnic backlash

But the power of population is on the side of the government. The clever ploy of moving millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang means that the Uighur don’t even form a significant majority in their own land. Unless they can harness the support of the displaced Han – and this is unlikely given ethnic and cultural differences – then their sorry plight looks set to persist.

Source

Chang, J. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2004)