Is Hong Kong another Tiananmen?


For seven weeks in 1989, Red China was convulsed by the Democracy Movement. This anti-government protest started in Beijing and then spread to many provincial cities.  Coincidentally the eyes of the world were trained on Beijing because the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had arrived for a state visit. The Democracy movement could not be hidden from the cameras of the world.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, and his deputy Zhao Ziyang were doubtlessly convulsed with agony at the loss of face. They looked like they could not control Communist China during the visit of the paramount leader of Communist Soviet Union.

The students from the great universities in Beijing came to the iconic plaza in front of the Forbidden City: Tiananmen Square. They demanded democracy.  They wanted to participate in the government. They were seeking a more open society. They had sound hopes for change but a promise of greater openness had been snatched away.

In 1987, Deng had dismissed Hu Yaobang, a reformer and a hero to the democracy movement. In April 1989, Hu died and the student gathered to commemorate his life. The wake turned into the Democracy Movement. For seven weeks the students protested, fasted, and occupied the heart of Beijing.  On June 4th, Deng Xiaoping struck back.

Deng was a survivor of the chaos and danger of the Mao Zedong regime. He feared disorder. He did not support democracy.  Zhao Ziyang was far more open.  Deng dismissed him from his post. Deng called in the army: tanks and machine guns ended the Tiananmen protest.  Zhao was forced to live in internal exile, student leaders like Wu-erkaixi fled China, but several hundred protesters died on June 4th, 1989.  The incident has become a non-event in China:  it is not spoken about, it is not commemorated, but it is feared by the government.

Hong Kong in 2014: the umbrella revolution!  Much has changed in 25 years but perhaps the most significant change is the media access of Hong Kong protesters who Twitter to the world.  Once again the scenario involves political power.

Hong Kong was a significant outpost of the British Empire for over 100 years. However, legally it was existing on borrowed time since a great portion of this vibrant city was built on land leased from the Chinese empire. In 1997 Hong Kong reverted to China under specific conditions: its citizens were guaranteed access to political choice and political power.

When the Chinese government rescinded this promise in July 2014, a protest movement formed in Hong Kong. Once again the students were at the front lines.  Their future is at stake.  Not only are they losing the prospect of being part of the government, they are also threatened with an uncertain economic future.  If Hong Kong becomes just another mainland Chinese megalopolis, will other Chinese inundate it? If Hong Kong loses its special status, will it lose its vibrant lifestyle?

Taiwan is watching. Hong Kong was supposed to demonstrate that Beijing could govern Chinese who had not had a Red Chinese past.  The Chinese Red flag was first raised on October 1, 1949.  It was never raised in Taiwan.  The Taiwanese have built their economy and their culture independently of mainland China.  But Beijing wants Taiwan back in the fold.  What do the Taiwanese see when police use teargas on protesters in Hong Kong?

The trajectory of democracy movements in China is long. In 1911 Sun Yatsen proclaimed the Chinese Republic on the derelict carcass of the Qing Empire.  1989 was another strong movement toward democratic values.  It was smothered and extinguished.  The question now is about the fate of Hong Kong in 2014.

Today the New York Times reported that the capitalist oligarchs of Hong Kong, the business tycoons who built the skyscrapers, are visiting Beijing and are making no democratic noises or demands. This is singularly bad news.  Revolutionary change demands a class coalition.  The students cannot halt the pending changes in Hong Kong’s government if they do not get support from at least some of the elites.

The elites appear to be playing it safe. Students are still ensconced in public places.  Negotiations are continuing with the police and the mayor.  But all this protest will be for naught if the democracy movement cannot bring the business community along. The protesters in 1989 had no allies once Zhao Ziyang was ousted from office.  There was no economic elite in Beijing in 1989. No army units took the side of the students and workers.

Hong Kong in 2014. Protesters:  you must find allies! No amount of Twitter communication will win the day if the protest movement doesn’t gain significant support from other segments of Hong Kong’s society.  And just like in 1989:  the world can only watch and wait.

About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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