23 January 2019
Zhao Ziyang talks to student protesters in Beijing. The pro-democracy uprising that ended in a bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, led to Zhao's sacking and house arrest. Photo: Internet
Zhao Ziyang talks to student protesters in Beijing. The pro-democracy uprising that ended in a bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, led to Zhao's sacking and house arrest. Photo: Internet

Why Hong Kong 2014 is not Beijing 1989

The movement is led by students who attract support from a wide range of society. They occupy key districts of the city; the government orders them to leave but they refuse. It does not know how to remove them. The conflict becomes increasingly violent and the demands of the students increase.

The protests capture the attention of the world. Camera crews fly it from around the planet to film the event and capture the moment of brave and headstrong students confronting the world’s most powerful Communist regime.

This would be an accurate description of the pro-democracy protests of the last week in Hong Kong – and the student-led demonstrations that began in Beijing on April 22, 1989.

The two have much in common – and much that is different. The question that everyone is asking is whether they will have the same outcome.

The Beijing protests against corruption and inflation began in Tiananmen square after the funeral of Hu Yaobang, a leader much admired by the students but who had been dismissed by Deng Xiaoping in January 1987 for being too weak in dealing with student protests.

To the astonishment of everyone, the students were allowed to remain overnight in the most sensitive place in China and set up tents. This was unthinkable in a country with such an efficient internal security system – and was only possible because the government was divided on how to deal with them.

Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief, sympathised with the students and favoured a light hand. Li Peng, the Prime Minister, saw them as “counter-revolutionaries” who needed to be removed at once.

Unknown to the students themselves, they became a pawn in a bitter power struggle, which ended into the dismissal of Zhao, his being placed under house arrest for the rest of his life and a nationwide purge of his supporters.

It was this paralysis within the government that allowed the protesters to do much what they wanted; the police virtually withdrew from the streets.

When Deng and his fellow elders decided in late May to remove the protesters, they turned to the People’s Liberation Army as the only people capable of doing it. “If 10,000 die, we will have stability for 10 years,” said Deng, according to one version circulating in Beijing at the time.

In Hong Kong, the situation is different. First, the police have had months to prepare for Occupy Central, the time needed to buy all the equipment they need and train officers how to deal with civil disobedience. In 1989, the Beijing police did not have this training or equipment.

Second, the Hong Kong government is united behind the police and the Chief Executive.

Third, the protests of 1989 occurred in the heart of the political system and threatened the conservative wing of the Communist Party; if its leaders lost, they faced dismissal, loss of their privileges and prison – the miserable destiny of disgraced party leaders of Eastern Europe that year.

But this time, the protests are occurring on the far edge of the empire, in a city whose information, legal system and way of living is different.

Censorship has prevented the majority of Chinese from knowing the true situation here. So the protests do not affect the mainland, unlike those of 1989, when students from all over China poured into Beijing. The purge and crackdown that followed was nationwide.

Beijing is confident that the HK government can contain and disperse the protests through negotiations and police. They will have no lasting impact on the rest of China.

Fourthly, the leaders of 2014 are not those of 1989. That year the decisions were made by Deng and a dozen party veterans, acting on information – much of it partial and incomplete – from Li Peng and his supporters. After Deng lost confidence in Zhao Ziyang, he did not take his telephone calls or read his reports.

This time, the leaders are younger and better informed. They have an understanding and appreciation of the outside world that the party veterans did not have. Then, the reform and open-door policy was only 10 years old; the veterans did not realise the global damage the crackdown would bring.

The leaders today are wired into the world. They realise the downside of People’s Armed Police or PLA soldiers marching through the streets of Hong Kong and herding screaming students into lorries, in front of television cameras broadcasting the scenes live around the world.

They will not make the same mistake this time. The scenes of June 1989 in Beijing will not be repeated in Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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