The tense situation in Hong Kong is at a critical juncture. The protesters have made plain that they are there to stay, though their numbers are dwindling. They are demanding that the Beijing-appointed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, resign. They want China to live up to its promise that elections in 2017 will be freely contested, not constrained by being limited to Beijing-approved candidates.
Hong Kong’s student leader Joshua Wong recently called for international support in forcing Beijing to participate in negotiations for universal suffrage. The British and American governments have expressed “concern” and sympathy for the demonstrators, but Beijing will easily deflect such “interference in China’s internal affairs,” as the criticism will be called. Already, as happened in June 1989, the Beijing press has seen “the hand of Western powers” in the demonstrations, insisting that the Western media invented the term “umbrella revolution” just as it invented “color revolution” and “jasmine revolution.” But, will the outcome be an “Umbrella Revolution” or another Tiananmen?
An ominous sign of a potential police crackdown is use of the word “chaos” in Renmin ribao (People’s Daily, the official newspaper) to describe Hong Kong events. “Chaos” (luan) was the word used in the spring of 1989 to signal the Beijing leadership’s unwillingness to let the protests at Tiananmen drag on indefinitely. The word has a particular resonance in China: Its tumultuous modern history is replete with failed efforts to unify the country and prevent the formation of secret political cliques and factions. In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown, top leaders signaled through the press that the students were causing chaos and that “turmoil” would not be tolerated. Although Premier Zhao Ziyang met with students in the square, earning 16 years under house arrest, supreme leader Deng Xiaoping convinced his colleagues that the demonstrations were a threat and had to be put down. Martial law followed.
Beijing is following the same script today. Editorials on October 1 and 3, 2014 in Renmin ribao’s online editions dwelled on the demonstrators’ “illegal assembly” and “absurd and crazy kidnapping” of law and order. The protesters are being called an “extremist opposition group” that is not only breaking the law but also threatening to disrupt years of prosperity and stability.
The editorials scoff at the protesters’ talk of democracy and freedom, saying, “freedom without order isn’t real freedom, and will lead to social disharmony and instability.” Far from suggesting a path to compromise, the editorials are a warning of potential use of force.
Beijing’s chief concern is the domino effect of lending legitimacy to the pro-democracy forces. Even if it does not concede on the election issue, it no doubt wants to avoid appearing weak in the face of a popular protest. Beijing knows people in Taiwan, Tibet, and other parts of its self-proclaimed realm are watching for signs of flexibility, and successful demonstrations in Hong Kong might be followed by more of the same elsewhere in China, just as happened in 1989.
While Beijing has apparently ruled out concessions, it has authorized Hong Kong’s executive secretary to meet with some students. But to meet does not signify when or what to negotiate. Finding a face-saving formula will be extremely difficult, particularly since the demonstrators have no leaders, no common program, and no agreed-upon end game. Should talks fail, or not be held, the opposition will face a choice: Go home, hang on and risk losing public support, or escalate pressure such as by seizing an official building or office.
Beijing will do whatever is “necessary” to bring the Hong Kong situation under control. But will this be another Tiananmen? Hong Kong’s people have numbers, drive, and access to information technologies not available in 1989. Beijing will not be able to erase the “umbrella revolution” from national memory or discourse; social and new media will widely broadcast even the smallest slip-ups. And if the students and others do go home, chances are they’ll be back another time—and another. If Beijing wants to save face in the long term, it should honor its commitment to free elections and not interfere in the nomination process or the outcome.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly, and blogs at In the Human Interest.