To Understand Hong Kong, Don’t Think About Tiananmen

Protestors at a rally at Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Protestors at a rally at Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

As Hong Kong’s sleepless summer of political strife wears on, not a day, nay, an hour, seems to go by without someone evoking the 1989 crackdown against another group of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. On breathless postings on Twitter, people share pictures of military exercises by Chinese troops just across the border from Hong Kong, saying or suggesting that the end is near for the protest movement here. But who knows where or when exactly those pictures were taken, or for what purpose they have been made public.

On other social networks, friends and contacts bemoan what they see as the inevitable next stage in the current escalation of violence: Chinese army boots on the ground and a blood bath in Hong Kong. They do so with what feels like a strange, detached pessimism — half-worried and wishing to be proved wrong, half-itching to see another historic disaster unfold and claim credit for having predicted it.

That the long shadow of Tiananmen should inform how we look at the weekslong protests in Hong Kong is understandable, maybe even unavoidable. The 1989 demonstrations, too, started with young protesters taking to the streets with creativity and wit, asking for political reforms and democracy. And Hong Kong today, despite having its own government, is effectively under the control of the same Chinese Communist Party that deployed troops and tanks against its own citizens 30 years ago.

The crackdown at Tiananmen Square was before the internet, and it was, perhaps, the first state-run massacre to be televised live worldwide. It imprinted a number of iconic images on the collective memory — the young man standing stubbornly in front of armored tanks; the topless boy, held up by a friend, flashing victory signs against a black sky. And the crackdown came to represent how far China’s totalitarian government was ready to go to secure its power — even crushing its young, no matter how determined, brave or in the right they were.

I, too, at times have difficulty avoiding comparisons between that moment to this one: I was a student in Beijing in 1989 and witnessed the massacre that took place in early June. Like here today, the long weeks of demonstrations were marked by moments of hope and small triumphs, and moments of helplessness and anguish. When the tanks rolled in during the night of June 3–4, I was jolted out of bed before dawn by a screaming crowd outside my dorm window. I joined the group and saw busloads of dead bodies and injured people being taken into the university’s clinic. Like me, many onlookers were still wearing their pajamas, as they shouted at the troops that their sin would never be forgiven. The trauma certainly can’t be forgotten: I don’t know anyone who lived through those days who isn’t filled today by the gutting apprehension that any mass protests against Beijing can only end in blood.

But Tiananmen is not a useful prism through which to analyze the current situation in Hong Kong. It may set up, almost predetermine, observers — as well as participants — into believing that evermore violence cannot be avoided. And it risks distracting us from the significance of what has already happened here and now.

Not only is Hong Kong today not what Beijing was in 1989, but China as a whole isn’t what it was back then. Among other things, China no longer is a clumsy newcomer on the international scene, stumbling out of decades of political upheaval; it is a leading power, fully integrated in the world economy. The Chinese Communist Party still has all political control, and it still resorts to repression to quell or prevent dissent. But even as it has less to fear today, it has more to lose from a blood bath against civilians — including any credibility to the claim that its system can be a viable political alternative to Western democracies.

Beijing doesn’t need to take any such risks. It has many more weapons than brute force at its disposal to bend the population of China, or Hong Kong, to its will. Yes, it has made sure to broadcast photos and videos showcasing the Chinese army’s might. But the Chinese government can also repress dissent through simple coercion or just legislation — and perhaps soon, too, in Hong Kong as on the mainland, thanks to sophisticated system of high-tech controls. It has also encouraged nationalism to reach fever-pitch, so that it can deploy mass indignation to target a business or a whole country. It can make victims without shedding blood.

By obsessing over the prospect of a Tiananmen 2.0 in Hong Kong, we risk also losing sight of what the current crisis reveals — including how China really deals with the rest of the world. How it deals with the pacts it forges, like its Joint Declaration with Britain in 1984, which was meant to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and judicial independence after the British handed the city over in 1997 and until at least 2047. Or how it deals with the many agreements it has made with Hong Kong itself, including in the city’s mini-constitution, which promises the introduction of universal suffrage. China doesn’t keep its pledges.

The Chinese Communist Party celebrated last year four decades of “reform and openness,” yet in Hong Kong it is displaying anything but that. After 11 weeks of mass protests, Beijing has refused to engage in dialogue with the demonstrators, of any stripe, or to address any of their claims, either directly or through the city’s leader, Carrie Lam. It hasn’t budged, even though it might have been able to claim small concessions — like the full withdrawal of the extradition bill that set off the crisis or the creation of a commission of inquiry into alleged police violence — as diplomatic and realpolitik victories. Instead it has lashed out, accusing some protesters of being C.I.A. agents, others of being “black hands” or plants from Taiwan and many more of being unpatriotic. It is responding with scorn, condemnation and propaganda.

The Chinese government has also been making more and more veiled threats: Just this week, it called the protesters “terrorists” after they occupied the airport. But more than an omen of a forceful showdown to come, such statements reveal the deep gap between the authorities in Beijing and many people in Hong Kong. Projecting unyielding authority as it does may play well with Chinese nationalists on the mainland, but that only alienates Hong Kongers further and reinforces their resolve to fight for more democracy in the city.

So put aside Tiananmen for a moment, and consider what this moment in Hong Kong really reveals: China’s political leaders still simply cannot understand freethinking people.

Ilaria Maria Sala is an Italian journalist and writer based in Hong Kong.

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